Pick a Free OS

A diary of a Linux bumpkin

ZDNet LogoThere's a country song that describes the Linux phenomenon perfectly. It's called "Overnight Sensation," and it just so happens that my old girlfriend, Joni Mehler, wrote it. Everyone should have at least one ex-girlfriend who writes country songs, don't you think? Anyway, maybe you've heard this song. It goes…

"It took 20 long years to be an overnight sensation,

How could overnight take so many years?

It took many long years of hard work and inspiration,

To be an over-night sensa-a-tion!"

Development of code that today comprises Linux stretches far, far back to the roots of the self-recursively named GNU's Not Unix (GNU) Project founded by Richard M. Stallman in 1984. The GNU Project (pronounce the G) was dedicated to producing a free version of Unix because of Stallman' idea that free access to software source is a moral imperative. As the GNU Web page puts it, "'Free software' is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of 'free speech,' not 'free beer.'"


By way of bringing his dream to life Stallman built massive amounts of code over the course of years. A prodigiously capable solitary programmer, Stallman had previously written such seminal works as Emacs, and he subsequently went on to produce the GNU C Compiler (GCC), GNU symbolic debugger (GDB) and GNU Emacs, all of which he offered up for public use according to the terms of the GNU General Public License (GPL), which he also wrote.


Indeed, the GPL may be remembered as Stallman's biggest contribution of all.

Linus Torvalds, meanwhile, began to develop a Unix-like kernel while attending the University of Helsinki in the late 80s and early 1990s. He was inspired by a computer science professor who had long been working on a Unix-like kernel of his own, as well as by his frustrations with Minix, a Unix-like OS written for the educational community. Working closely with this professor, Torvalds was able to create a working kernel, which he initially turned loose upon the world under a fairly restrictive license. Within six months, though, he recognized his error and adopted the GPL, a move he later said this about: "Making Linux GPL'd was definitely the best thing I ever did."