The History of GNU Linux and Modern Confusion

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computer penguin The Linux operating system has come a long way in a short period of time, working its way up from a mere curiosity to a real player on the world stage. As more and more businesses embrace the power of Linux and explore what this open source operating system can do, it’s interesting to look back and see where its been, and the struggle it (along with many other open source software) has in front of it.

The History of Linux

The history of the Linux operating system dates all the way back to 1991, a short time span on the world stage but an eternity in the world of technology. It is often difficult to remember just how primitive computer technology was just a few decades ago, but consider this – at the beginning of the 90’s, DOS was still the preeminent operating system, and the GUI interface we know today was still pretty much a rarity. Users who wanted a friendly interface could turn to Apple, but the high prices of those machines generally put them out of reach of business owners and all but the wealthiest individual users.

While Bill Gates was busy working with the version of DOS he had purchased for the princely sum of $50,000, other computer enthusiasts were plugging away at an alternative computing platform. The enthusiasts of Unixworld were working on their own computer systems, but Unix itself was quite a pricey option, and not a viable one for the business community. Unix was instead the playground of computer science majors, and the source code behind the operating system was (at the time) a closely guarded secret.

One of the first forays into the world of the open source operating system was MINIX, an operating system that was written from the ground up by Professor Andrew Tanenbaum as a way to teach his students the inner workings of a computer operating system. While MINIX was not an exceptional operating system, it was unique in that its source code was freely available, allowing students and computer enthusiasts to explore how the system worked. This open source approach also allows students to tinker with the program and instantly see the results of their changes.

One of the students who enjoyed tinkering with the open source MINIX operating system was Linus Torvalds, who would later become the father of the Linux operating system. At the time Torvalds was a 21 year old student at the University of Helsinki in Finland. But even at that young age, Torvalds loved to explore the inner workings of computer systems, pushing them to their limits to see what would happen.

Another project that played a big role in the development of open source software in general, and Linux in particular, was the GNU project. Proponents of the GNU system argued that software should be freely available, and they were working to make their vision a reality. Those in the GNU camp felt that by making the source code freely available, computer enthusiasts could constantly tweak that software to make it better and more user friendly.

As the work went on more and more people jumped onto the open source bandwagon. Powered by the many newly developed programs from the GNU system, the Linux operating system Torvalds had created became more robust and much more powerful for business users.

What had begun as a mere side project had become a viable operating system alternative, making even major players like Microsoft sit up and take notice.

And Modern Confusion

Today the Linux operating system is a real threat the dominance of proprietary systems as many companies discover how stable, reliable, and easy to work with Linux systems really are. So much so that it seems the big boys are getting a little nervous.

In February, the International Intellectual Property Alliance, an umbrella group for organizations including the MPAA and RIAA, requested the Office of the United States Trade Representative  consider countries like Indonesia, Brazil and India for its “Special 301 watchlist” just because they use open source software.

The Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 created the Special 301 mechanism. The Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) issues an annual Special 301 Report which “examines in detail the adequacy and effectiveness of intellectual property rights” in many countries around the world. If countries make it on the Watch List, it means that they appear to not be respecting copyright rights, and the IIPA appears to feel that using open source software and recommending people use open source software is enough for a country to get itself designated as a bastion of piracy.

While this is clearly a political move designed to keep the coffers of expensive software companies full of gold, it shows the attempts at the top to create confusion and fear around open source software – which can trickle down to the masses.

In 2008, Linux Austinite folks watched in something akin to horror as an Austin Independent School District Teacher made the national Linux blogosphere news for confiscating Linux CD’s from her student in an unnamed middle school in Austin, Texas and firing off a letter to the founder of a non-profit attacking him for “falsehoods” because “no software is free” and she believed spreading that “misconception” is “harmful” to the kids.

Austin’s nickname is “The Silicon Hills” due to our being the home of many development, manufacturing, and office centers for many technology corporations, including 3M, Apple Inc., Hewlett-Packard, Google, AMD, Applied Materials, Cirrus Logic, Cisco Systems, eBay/PayPal, Hoover’s, Intel Corporation, National Instruments, Samsung Group, Silicon Laboratories, Sun Microsystems and United Devices. Our Governor, Rick Perry, has offered 1.4 Million in incentives if Facebook will come here and set up shop. (We’ve been kinda depressed after Google broke up with us after only four months.)

Needless to say, Austinites tech view of themselves did not account for an exchange like this taking place in one of our schools, nor did we ever think we would read an Austin teacher write the following words to HeliOS‘s project founder, Ken Starks:

…observed one of my students with a group of other children gathered around his laptop. Upon looking at his computer, I saw he was giving a demonstration of some sort. The student was showing the ability of the laptop and handing out Linux disks. After confiscating the disks I called a confrence with the student and that is how I came to discover you and your organization. Mr. Starks, I am sure you strongly believe in what you are doing but I cannot either support your efforts or allow them to happen in my classroom. At this point, I am not sure what you are doing is legal. No software is free and spreading that misconception is harmful. These children look up to adults for guidance and discipline. I will research this as time allows and I want to assure you, if you are doing anything illegal, I will pursue charges as the law allows. Mr. Starks, I along with many others tried Linux during college and I assure you, the claims you make are grossly over-stated and hinge on falsehoods. I admire your attempts in getting computers in the hands of disadvantaged people but putting linux on these machines is holding our kids back.
This is a world where Windows runs on virtually every computer and putting on a carnival show for an operating system is not helping these children at all. I am sure if you contacted Microsoft, they would be more than happy to supply you with copies of an older verison of Windows and that way, your computers would actually be of service to those receiving them…”
Karen xxxxxxxxx
xxxxxxxxx Middle School
AISD

The “attempts at getting computers into the hands of disadvantaged children” would be a reference to the HeliOS Initiative, an Austin non-profit that refurbishes old computers and gives them to kids that can’t afford it (which Mr. Stark co-founded). You can read Ken’s (seriously annoyed) response to the teacher on his blog here:

http://linuxlock.blogspot.com/2008/12/linux-stop-holding-our-kids-back.htmloverallc

It is a case in point for the type of misinformation there is out there about Linux. Many of our own clients seem to not know that the operating system the server runs on (CentOS) is open source and “free”. The web server the sites run on, Apache, is open source and “free”. The Courier Mail Server, Pure-FTP server and on and on.

The WordPress Software you use on your sites is open source. So’s Joomla. So’s Drupal. Apache, the open source web server, still runs more web sites than any other software (Netcraft Web Server Survey, Market Share for Top Servers Across All Domains August 1995 – February 2010).

So, if you think the history of Linux and the open source movement, and the attacks on it, are something that doesn’t concern you, we hope this article will help you think again.

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