In the beginning: Linux circa 1991

In the beginning: Linux circa 1991

Summary: ZDNet's 20th anniversary: Today, Linux is everywhere: In your Android smartphone, most of your favorite Website's servers, and in your DVRs and other home electronics. In 1991, it was just an idea by a bright graduate student: Linus Torvalds.


In 2011, you may not "see" Linux, but it's everywhere. Do you use Google, Facebook or Twitter? If so, you're using Linux. That Android phone in your pocket? Linux. DVRs? Your network attached storage (NAS) device? Your stock-exchange? Linux, Linux, Linux.

And, to think it all started with an e-mail from a smart graduate student, Linus Torvalds, to the comp.os.minix Usenet newsgroup:

Hello everybody out there using minix [a freeware Unix-like operating system for students by Andrew Tannenbaum] - I'm doing a (free) operating system. (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu [Gnu] was, and is, the free software collection of programs originated by Richard M. Stallman) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready. I'd like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things).

I've currently ported bash(1.08) and gcc(1.40), and things seem to work. This implies that I'll get something practical within a few months, and I'd like to know what features most people would want. Any suggestions are welcome, but I won't promise I'll implement them :-)

Linus (

PS. Yes - it's free of any minix code, and it has a multi-threaded fs. It is NOT portable (uses 386 task switching etc), and it probably never will support anything other than AT-harddisks, as that's all I have :-(.

Who knew what it would turn into? No one did. I certainly didn't. I came to Linux later, although I was already using Minix and a host of other Unix systems including AIX, SCO Unix System V/386, Solaris, and BSD Unix. These Unix operating system variants continue to live on in one form or another, but Linux outshines them all.

The only real challenger in popularity to Linux from the Unix family already existed in 1991 as well, but I'll bet most of you won't be able to guess what it was.

Remember this now folks, I may use it another Linux quiz down the road. The answer is NeXTStep. You should know it as the direct ancestor of the Mac OS X family.

The real question isn't how Linux got its start. That's easy enough to find out. The real question has always been why did Linux flourish so, while all the others moved into niches?

It's not, despite what former Sun CEO Scott McNealy has said, that Solaris ever had a realistic chance of making sure that "Linux never would have happened." Dream on, dream on.

Linux overcame Solaris, AIX, HP-UX, and the rest of the non-Intel Unix systems because it was far less expensive to run Linux on Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) x86 hardware then it was to run them on POWER, SPARC or other specialized hardware. Yes, Sun played with putting Solaris on Intel, three times, but only as a price-teaser to try to sell customers Solaris on SPARC.

In addition, historically Unix's Achilles heel has been its incompatibility between platforms. Unlike Linux, where any program will run on any version of Linux, a program that will run on say SCO OpenServer won't run on Solaris and a Solaris program won't run on AIX and so on. That always hurt Unix, and it was one of the wedges that Linux used to force the various Unix operating systems into permanent niches.

There were other x86 Unix distributions--Interactive Unix, Dell SVR4 Unix (Yes, Dell), and SCO OpenServer-but none of them were able to keep up with Linux. That's why SCO briefly turned into a Linux company with its purchase of Caldera, before killing itself in an insane legal fire against Linux that was doomed to fail from the start .

It was also to Linux's advantage that its license, the Gnu General Public License version 2 (GPLv2) made it possible both to share the efforts of many programmers without letting their work disappear into proprietary projects. That, as I see it, was one of the problems with the BSD Unix family--FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, etc.--and its BSD License.

Another plus in Linux's favor was that as it turned out, Linux Torvalds wasn't just a great programmer; he was a great project manager. Oh, Torvalds can be grumpy, very grumpy, but at the end of the day, after almost twenty-years in charge, he still manages to get thousands of developers to work together on an outstanding operating system. Not bad for an obscure graduate student out of Finland eh?

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» Return to ZDNet's 20th Anniversary Special

Topics: Operating Systems, Linux, Open Source, Software

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  • RE: In the beginning: Linux circa 1991

    Yggdrasil.... that was my first...
  • Then why is it at 0.7%

    Sorry, the stats don't lie, Linux is still a niche. Could you end it with the because I using FB non-sense means I am using Linux? I am accessing Facebook on a Windows 7 Ultimate SP1 64 bit PC using the Internet Explorer 9 32 bit web browser. Which means I am using Windows, not Linux. Does Facebook and Google have support for Memory Management, Pre-emptive multi-tasking, plug and play, kernel, driver model, hardware assisted virtualization?

    Steven, its clear you misunderstand what an operating system is. Facebook and Google are web pages made of HTML.
    Mr. Dee
    • RE: In the beginning: Linux circa 1991

      @Mr. Dee Running on a LAMP (Linux Apache MySQL PHP) server, so the content you are seeing is being generated using Linux. A bit of a stretch, but you are "using" Linux, in that you are giving a Linux server commands to deliver you the content you want to see.

      Linux sits behind a large number of big websites, and even more small ones.

      Our ERP software runs on Linux, but we provide a Windows client, because the Linux server provides the stability and keeps the licensing costs for our customers to a minimum (most didn't have a server, before they started using our system), whilst the Windows client provides the front end flexibility that Linux can't currently offer.

      I'm not a Linux fanboy, nor a Windows one, I use Windows, Linux and OS X on a daily basis and they are each as good as each other, in general terms. Each has plus point, where certain tasks are easier to accomplish, but in general day-to-day use, I don't see any real differences between them.
      • RE: In the beginning: Linux circa 1991

        @wright_is Your arguments are just like : I am using a nuclear power plant, by turning on my coffee maker.
        Juergen Hartl
    • All the heavy lifting in IT is unix

      Much of that today is is powered by Linux.

      But yes, not your desktop;-)
      Richard Flude
      • RE: In the beginning: Linux circa 1991

        @Richard Flude His might not, but mine is.
    • RE: In the beginning: Linux circa 1991

      @Mr. Dee
      Free modern day Linux distros install quickly and just keep on working. Defenders of Windows seem to me to people who enjoy paying for something that works less well than the free alternative. Go figure out.
      • RE: In the beginning: Linux circa 1991

        @oldtechdudze <br><br>Hopefully at some point, Mr. Dee will flap his ears and fly away. <br>It's nothing between his ears. <br><br>FYI: He uses Linux daily.
      • Maybe your assumptions are wrong

        @oldtechdudze People pay for windows because it works well and they can easily run the programs they want.

        If Windows were so bad, we should be seeing lots of people using Linux, but we dont.

        It seems to me that the defenders of Linux fail to acknowledge how much windows has improved over the years. Instead they fight all their petty little battles over and over again...
      • Message has been deleted.

        Mr. Dee
      • RE: In the beginning: Linux circa 1991


        "If Windows were so bad, we should be seeing lots of people using Linux, but we dont."

        The reason that most people run Windows is because it comes preinstalled. People take the path of least resistance. If Ubuntu or OpenSuse or Mint or (take your pick of the modern distros) came preinstalled with their computer, they'd be using Linux.
      • RE: In the beginning: Linux circa 1991

        [i]Defenders of Windows seem to me to people who enjoy paying for something that works less well than the free alternative. Go figure out.[/i]

        @oldtechdudze , it's the mindset that unless you paid for it, then it means it's no good. Free is bad. Paying out the_ass is good.

        You can tell the difference between somebody who's honestly used it (and have some valid criticism) vs. these shills who've never used it before and promote FUD in order to discredit it.
      • RE: In the beginning: Linux circa 1991


        I'm a Linux fan, but to say that Windows is straight junk is wrong. Yea, this was the case back in the day when it was extremely vulnerable, but Windows 7 is actually a very good OS. There are a couple of reasons Windows 7 is used in the home market. Most Likely, it is a result of being pre-installed. Casual Users aren;t going to know how to swap an OS. Secondly, people are used to windows from previous versions, so if you get them a *nix machine to use, they won't know what to do. Lastly, there is some types of software that aren't supported on non-Windows platforms, such as the majority of PC games. When businesses start making their games available to Linux/Mac users as the norm rather than the exception to the general rule, you will see more Linux Desktop machines.
    • RE: In the beginning: Linux circa 1991

      @Mr. Dee <br><br>You bought Ultimate ?<br><br>Oh dear.

      PS your talking rubbish - he means all the backend of those sites are run by Linux. As for the other assertions they are not even worth rebuttal.

      I suggest you research the subject before commenting next time as you are in danger of making yourself look very silly.
      Alan Smithie
      • RE: In the beginning: Linux circa 1991

        @Alan Smithie<br><br>Windows 7 Ultimate != Vista Ultimate<br><br>There actually is a reason to run Ultimate with 7 if you need BitLocker or additional Enterprise features. With Windows 7, Ultimate is the same exact thing as Enterprise it's just one is a retail license and one is a volume license. MS didn't make any frivilous extra content promises like they did with Vista Ultimate.

        *typing this from my Win7 Ultimate HP 8540w*
      • You don't use Windows so how would know its worthy or not

        @Alan Smithie

        - Direct Access
        - BranchCache
        - VHD Boot
        - BitLocker To Go
        - BitLocker Drive Encryption
        - AppLocker
        - Group Policy with ability to enforce them

        Oh wait, you don't have a job, still living in a family members basement, so you wouldn't know what its like to use real world features in a work place.
        Mr. Dee
      • RE: In the beginning: Linux circa 1991

        @Alan Smithie
        He is just a troll. Best thing is to ignore him. At least Loverock is funny. This guys is boring and predictable troll.
      • RE: In the beginning: Linux circa 1991

        @Mr Dee(minus)<br><br>Thank you for your enlightening comments, I will be sure to completely disregard them in the future as they have all the wit of a stone and the gravitas of a pink balloon.
        Alan Smithie
      • RE: In the beginning: Linux circa 1991

        @Mr. Dee

        Nothing you list there is new to the *nix world, only new to the Windows world.
      • RE: In the beginning: Linux circa 1991

        [i]Nothing you list there is new to the *nix world, only new to the Windows world.[/i]

        And they're playing catch-up after all these years. So much for 'corporate innovation'.