Linux at 25: A retrospective

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Credit: Reuters: USA Today Sports/Baz Ratner, Wikimedia
What a long, strange 25 years it’s been

From its obscure origins to its present primacy, Linux is now old enough to rent a car without having to pay extra for insurance. It has also been described as the “the greatest shared technology asset in history,” and it’s the chassis upon which a sizeable proportion of all the software on the planet is built. Here’s a quick look back at Linux’s history.

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The fateful Usenet post

The initial announcement of what would ultimately become such an earthshaking piece of software was, really, quite humble. Torvalds made a modest Usenet post on August 25, 1991, saying that he’d created a basic, free operating system and asking whether users liked or disliked specific features from Minix, the OS that gave him the idea for Linux.

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The early years

A community began to develop around the Linux kernel, and that community created new features and fixes for Linux. Eventually, the earliest Linux distributions – complete software packages intended for the end-user – emerged in the form of Slackware, Debian and Red Hat.

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Fruitful multiplication

The proliferation of Linux distros, many with common roots, quickly led to a complicated family tree, as you can see here. (The graphic is used under the GNU Free Documentation License. The full, original version, by Andreas Lundqvist and Donjan Rodic, is available for viewing here, and is very much worth a look.)

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Credit: Thinkstock
Legal wrangling

Copyright law has dogged Linux as a project from the start. Accusations that Torvalds copied code from the Minix operating system (the creator of Minix has stated publicly that that’s not true), trademark battles had to be solved, and so on. A long-standing legal battle between the SCO Group and various Linux vendors stretched from 2003 to…well, we guess it’s still technically going on, even if it’s very nearly over.

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The Cathedral and the Bazaar

An essay, and later a book, by technologist Eric S. Raymond published in 1998 proves incredibly influential, and, arguably, touches off the rapid spread of open-source software throughout the world of technology. Mainstream tech giants like HP and Compaq announce Linux-based systems the following year.

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Credit: Reuters, USA Today Sports/Baz Ratner
War with Microsoft

Microsoft and Linux have been publicly critical of each other since at least the early 2000s. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer famously described Linux as a “cancer” in 2001, and Torvalds said that Microsoft is “full of shit” as recently as 2012. Linux fans have long held up Microsoft as the evil empire, and Microsoft pretty clearly viewed Linux as a competitor and a threat for a long time. Still, the relationship has brightened considerably of late, as Microsoft gets more and more heavily involved in open-source software. (Current CEO Satya Nadella avers that he “loves” Linux.”)

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Not content with having created the Linux kernel, Torvalds invented Git in 2005, after the proprietary revision and source code management product the kernel project had been using did away with its free version. Git is now one of the most-used products of its type, due in no small part to the fact that it’s used for the biggest collaborative software development project in the world.

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Next stop, the business world

While open-source software’s freewheeling development model might have put off enterprise users in the past, Linux has been making an outsized splash in the business world for the past several years. Enterprises surveyed by the Linux Foundation in 2014 said that they were deploying Linux more and more often because of its primacy in the cloud, technical superiority and strong security.

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And after that, mobile

The Linux kernel is at the heart of Android, which is far and away the most popular mobile operating system in the world, according to the latest figures from IDC. Roughly four in five smartphones and tablets around the world run Android.

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Credit: Randal Schwartz and Michelangelo/REMIXED
Where we are today

The latest Linux Kernel Development report is illuminating – kernel development is now highly professionalized, with something like 85% of recent changes made by paid professionals. The kernel is up to nearly 22 million lines of code. About 10,000 patches make it into every released version. Linux is a critical underpinning of business IT, mobile devices, and, frankly, you just can’t escape it. Not bad for something that “won’t be big and professional like gnu.”