Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Open Source Pioneer

 When we think of the term “computer” not a lot come in mind; just a box that is connected to a monitor with a keyboard and a mouse and, nowadays, laptops and smartphones. When we think of key figures and their contributions to the computer industry, again, not a lot come in mind; Bill Gates with Microsoft Windows and Steve Jobs with the Macintosh. However, the computer industry is much more deep and contains many more masterminds than just those three, who just found themselves in the right place at the right time, and it is not limited only to the operating system of Microsoft, Windows, nor the one of Apple, OS X, and their products.

On the 25th of August in 1991, a young Finish student of the university of Helsinki posted a thread to a newsgroup website of the time, comp.os.minix, with which he was introducing a new operating system to the world: “...I'm doing a (free) operating system,” he said, “just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu,” yet he would be proven wrong in the following years since it is being used by millions around the world today. (“What would you like to see most in minix?” comp.os.minix)
This young student was Linus Torvalds and out of his passion for computers started writing code in order to create a terminal emulator to run on his historic Intel 80386 based computer. Later on he discovered that his creation was not just that, but a kernel of an operating system which he named Freax. However, Freax was named by mistake Linux by his server’s administrator which, thankfully, lead him to consent to this name. Linux became the first free and open source operating system in the history of computer operating systems which drew a lot of people in its development process since “at that time, programmers worldwide were greatly inspired by the GNU project by Richard Stallman,” as stated on, a website that has been online for more than 20 years. (Wikipedia, “History of Linux” and, “History of Linux”)
Operating systems are the set of software that utilizes the hardware of the computer in order to make their use easy for the end user. Without operating systems, today, we wouldn’t have the advancement we do; we wouldn’t have desktop computers or laptops, the Internet, cell phones or we would not be even able to send “Curiosity” to Mars, 140 million miles away from out home planet. Even the computer that sent Neil Armstrong and the rest of the Apollo 11 crew to the Moon “ran” a simple real-time operating system. Without the “ApolloGuidance Computer”, the mission would be simply impossible.
So, operating systems are more than a crucial part of computers, and their development requires a lot of intelligence, time, effort and... coffee, especially twenty years ago, when there was not as enough documentation and instruction sheets that would provide a potential kernel developer sufficient information on how a processor works and what instructions are available. This means that Torvalds was an intuitive and hardworking person who overcame many difficulties to take his development on Linux from a hobby to a highly professional job, creating a product on which many people depend on.
Now, what does the term “free and open source” refer to? It refers to the fact that the software, in this case the operating system named Linux, is completely liberally licensed, free of charge and the source code of its kernel is also free for anyone to view, modify and share, as opposed to Microsoft Windows and OS X which are the exact opposite: proprietary and closed source; only people that enroll in the development process are allowed to view the source code and everyone else can rent the software by purchasing a license and anything that opposes these facts is illegal.
The fact that Linux was the first free and open source kernel was what attracted a lot of programmers into its development and that is what made Torvalds the pioneer of Free and Open Source, not only operating systems but, software in general. His love towards this ideology was his key to success since nothing else like this had existed before, except for Richard Stallman’s equivalent open source kernel “GNUHurd,” which was just an idea at the time and up to this very day has not been “completed.”
Linux today helps us in our lives even if we do not know it. Satellites, cable receivers and services, popular websites like Google, Amazon or and Yahoo, cell phones like Android and Tizen, TVs and even desktop computers! However, as utopic as it may seem, Linux, and especially Torvalds, has received a lot of criticism because of the fact that it is Free and Open Source.
Back in the 90s, when Windows started to gain its reputation in the market, “people conceived the idea that if you wanted something good, you would also have to pay a few more bucks and that’s why everyone rushed to the market to buy Windows 95,” says Constantinos Canavos, the editor of OSArena, a Free and Open Source related news website. Microsoft slowly dominated the international software market at the same time that Linus was taking his first steps in the same field. However, Microsoft was threatened by the new Free operating system waging a “cold war” against it. The reason: More and more server systems would transition to the free, and better functioning, alternative – Linux – leading them to lose a tremendous share of that side of the market and feared that the same would happen to its pricy, and not so well functioning, desktop.
Constantinos also sais that “Microsoft never came in a direct “collision” with Linux, neither did they contested Microsoft, as rumors wish to say,” however, in order to make Linus “cave,” Microsoft started a campaign named “Get the facts” in 2002 with which the popular firm gave some “facts” to people as of how Windows is the tool they should choose over some free alternative. Linus, as Constantinos mentioned, “just in the spirit of the geek humor said some things,” which did hurt the other side: “Software is like sex... it's better when it's free.” A few years later the page was “killed” replacing it with a page that compared Windows Server Edition to the Linux servers and a little later it ended up getting completely removed from the servers of Microsoft, returning just a 404 error. (“Microsoft kills its 'Get the Facts' anti-Linux site,” August 2007, Mary Jo Foley)
Regardless of the criticism which did get personal as Linus said, he did not even think of abandoning his project. Even later on in time he would mention this dispute with humor. In an interview, specifically, he stated that it was not his intention “to ruin Microsoft. This is just an unintended side effect.” And that was true, since Microsoft could see that they were starting to lose to Linux, as mentioned in “Facts behind Microsoft's anti-Linux campaign,” by Matt Asay in January of 2009. In his article, he quoted the exact words of the, then, CEO of Microsoft Jim Allchin that they are not on a path to win against Linux, but they must change many things, in an effort to “tune down” the dispute. From his side, Linus said that “Microsoft is not bad, they are just very casual and make crappy operating systems.”
Linus had also stated that if Microsoft eventually started writing code and creating applications and software for Linux, he would have won, something that would be proven correct years later, today, since Microsoft became the number one contributor to the Linux project passing in front of key founders of the project. So, by doing all the above, Microsoft, by itself, drew attention towards the first major FOSS project making Torvalds a major threat or partner, as they wish to call him; according to the video “Microsoft just want to say,” which was published last year on the official Linux Foundation YouTube channel, Microsoft admitted that they put effort into “scaring off” Linux and ended with the rhetorical question “Microsoft and Linux?” Is this an effort to make things right or just another game? I guess time will show.
Therefore, to conclude, Linus Torvalds worked hard on his inspiration and made his work a public effort, but also managed to maintain it throughout the years of its existence leaving any threat or resentfulness aside with his humor. He even incorporated his humor into naming the newer versions of the Linux kernel: “Sheep on Meth,” or to point out the problems by cursing nVidia in public. was the codename of a previous version. Regardless of all this, he is the one who was awarded with the Joint Millenium Technology Prize.

Work Cited
  • Asay, Matt. “Facts behind Microsoft's anti-Linux campaign”, January 19, 2009
  • Foley, Mary. “Microsoft kills its 'Get the Facts' anti-Linux site”, August 23, 2007
  • Documentary, “Linus Torvalds”
  • Noyes, Katherine. “Linus Torvalds Wins Joint Millennium Technology Prize”  PCWorld, June 13, 2012
  • Torvalds, Linus Benedict. “What would you like to see most in minix?” comp.os.minix, August 25, 1991
  • The Linux Foundation, “Microsoft just want to say”
  • Aalto University Ace, “Aalto Talk with Linus Torvalds”

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