The computer world is sadder this evening with the news of the passing of Steve Jobs. Few people have had more of an impact on our technological lives than the founder and long-time CEO of Apple. Everybody knows about iPhones, iPads, and iPods. They have become as much as a part of American culture as apple pie and corn on the cob, and all have come into existance under Jobs’ leadership. Obsessively finicky about product design, incredibly intelligent, and a true visionary, he will be sorely missed and never forgotten.
While I’ve got Jobs on my mind and computers on the brain (they’re what I work with every day, after all), let’s talk for a quick second about Linux. In case you don’t know, Linux is a computer operating system. It’s the software that allows a computer to run and manage all the other programs installed on it. There are many different operating systems functioning in the world, but only two that have a large footprint: Microsoft Windows and Apple’s (there’s Mr. Jobs again) MacOS. They run the vast majority of all computers, and are the best known.
Linux is something of a niche OS (but don’t say that too loudly among its avid followers). It’s also really unique in that it’s an “open source” system, which means no one individual or company is responsible for its development and maintenance. There are a bunch of different varieties of Linux that have been put together by various groups (Red Hat, Caldera, Debian, and Ubuntu come immediately to mind), but all are based on a single Linux kernel, which was developed by Linus Torvalds.
Torvalds started Linux as a college project in early 1991. The young Finn, then just 21, had an Intel 386-based machine (remember those?!?…I do) and (much like Steve Jobs) an inquisitive mind. By mid-August, he had the guts of an operating system and had ported one the more popular C-compilers (gcc, the GNU compiler) to function on it. That meant more rapid development could take place, since programmers use compilers to turn lots of code into instructions that computers can understand.
On October 5, 1991, Torvalds released the first official version of Linux: version 0.02. Of course, the 1991 model of the Internet didn’t look anything like it does today. I don’t even recall that we had a web browser. We mostly used ftp and knew the raw octets of an IP address to navigate around…ah, the good ole’ days. Torvalds published the code to an ftp site, posted a notice on a NetNews forums, and the rest is history.
Over the last twenty years, thousands and thousands of people, from all walks of life and all corners of the planet, have collaborated to make Linux a solid, stable, viable operating system with as much (or more) power and flexibility as the big guys. And because it’s open source, you can simply go to the Internet, download it, and build a Linux-based machine. If installing an new OS directly from the Web is a bit daunting (and I don’t blame you for feeling that way), there are the various companies I mentioned earlier that have built nice boxed editions with smooth Windows-like installers. The cost is nominal (I think I paid $40 for my version of Linux).
So, if you think Windows is too big and bloated for your tastes and you don’t have a Mac in the house, Linux just may be your baby. Inexpensive, solid, fast, and constantly maintained, Linux has come a long way in just 20 years.