A diary of a Linux bumpkin
Having a GPL'd kernel that the GCC and other GNU programs could run on brought the GNU Project to a different level. Now, people could actually write, compile and run programs on a free Unix-like platform, opening the door for myriad developers to take up keyboards and apply their skills where most appropriate. Stallman asked Linus for permission to distribute a working version of the GNU operating system under the name 'Linux,' and perhaps not realizing the far-reaching fame (if not fortune) that decision would bring, Linus consented.
It should be noted that although the free Unix-like operating system we use today is called Linux (a polymorph of Unix and Linus), the single greatest contributor of code is none other than Stallman, whose Free Software Foundation contributes about 28 percent of the code in a basic Linux installation, according to Stallman' estimates. Torvald's decision to GPL the Linux kernel was in part a gesture of respect for the GNU C Compiler, without which Linus properly recognized there could never be a free Unix-like OS. In addition to the GCC, however, Stallman and the Free Software Foundation also contributed hundreds and hundreds of less glamorous programs including the foundational C libraries.
Thus the long-suffering idealist, Stallman, renowned for well-reasoned treatises against the ethics of commercial software, and the likeable, unassuming Torvalds, who for years was rarely photographed without an up-tilted celebratory ale, really ought to be acknowledged as co-contributors to the free Unix-like OS that today we know as Linux.
Unlike the more idealistic Stallman, Torvalds believes that proprietary software also plays a role in furthering software. He points out that it was not until commercial vendors such as Red Hat got involved with Linux that it became installable by mere mortals. A thoroughly practical soul, Linus seems to have provided just the right reality factor to morph GNU from idealistic dream to what it is today, the fastest growing operating system in the known universe.
I got my first Linux box running back in February of 1998, which practically makes me an old-timer by user standards. Back then there were only 3.5 million Linux users, compared to the 7 million users now (these figures are from what is supposed to be the second in a series of leaked Microsoft documents). Back then, there wasn't too much speculation of Linux making any kind of significant dent in the desktop market.