Out of the Frozen North

Out of the Frozen North

In 1992, a guy in Finland named Linus Torvalds took a then-popular, small, educational version of UNIX called Minix, decided it wasn’t quite what he wanted, and proceeded to rewrite and extend it so that it was more to his taste. Lots of enthusiastic programmers have started projects like that, but to everyone’s astonishment, Linus actually finished his. By mid-1993, his system had long since left its Minix roots and was becoming a genuinely usable version of UNIX. Linus’s system was picked up with great enthusiasm by programmers, and later by users, all over the Internet. It spread like crazy, to become the fastest-growing part of UNIX-dom.

Linux is popular for three reasons:

  • It works well, even on a small, cheap PC. A 386 PC with 4MB of random-access memory (RAM) and a 40MB hard drive can run Linux — barely. (You can find computers like that for $5 at the thrift store these days.) On a top-of-the-line Pentium PC, its performance approaches that of a full-blown traditional UNIX workstation.

  • Lots of enthusiastic people are working on Linux, with wonderful new features and additions available every day. Many of them even work.

  • It’s free!

The many developers of Linux proudly describe it as a “hacker’s system,” one written by and for enthusiastic programmers. (This classic meaning of hacker should not be confused with the other, media-debased “computer vandal” definition.) These programmers keep up the development of Linux at a brisk pace, and a new “development” version is made available on the Internet every few days. Every once in a while, the developers decide that they have gotten enough bugs out of their recent developments, and they release a “stable” version, which stays constant for months rather than days. Most normal people use the stable version rather than a development version. Using a development version of Linux is sort of like living in a house inhabited by a large family of carpenters and architects: Every morning when you wake up, the house is a little different. Maybe you have a new turret, or some walls have moved. Or perhaps someone has temporarily removed the floor under your bed. (Oops — sorry about that.)

Linux started life as the operating system of choice for students and other cheapskates . . . er . . . users who wanted a UNIX system of their own but couldn’t afford a traditional UNIX workstation. As Linux has matured into a stable, reliable UNIX system, this base has expanded to include companies and institutions that could afford traditional UNIX workstations, but found that Linux enabled them to add PC-based workstations at a fraction of the cost. In fact, Linux is now conservatively estimated to have more than 18 million users, making it the second or third most popular operating system in the world, behind Windows and about even with the Macintosh operating system.

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