From subversive to mainstream: Looking back on 18 years with Linux

From subversive to mainstream: Looking back on 18 years with Linux

Summary: It's funny to look back on my personal history with Linux and remember how subversive and alternative it once was. These days, it's just another operating system. That original subversive spark is gone.


OK kids, dig out your 8-track tape decks, switch on your 40-channel CB radios, rack-off your sidepipes, and sling your too-long bangs off your face with a flip of your head, we're going back in time. OK, maybe we won't go back quite that far but we're going back a full 18 years on this little ride. I'm taking you on a long journey through the many bumps and rattles I've had over the years with my love affair with Linux. What a long, strange trip it's been. And now that Linux has "arrived," I'm a little bummed out nowadays because it was fun to be part of something that made people so angry and irritated.

Linux. From its original concept way back in 1991, to its near world domination in 2013, Linux has travelled far as an operating system and as a symbol of freedom.

You can now find Linux on every type of hardware from mainframes to mid-range servers to desktops to tablets to cell phones and down to miniature computing devices such as the Arduino. There's really no limit to what Linux can do or has done for technology.

Its positive impact on computing cannot be denied.

But its positive attributes were ignored by mainstream companies for many years no matter how loudly we converts sang its praises and weathered its criticisms.

I heard, and ignored, every possible criticism and threat launched at me over my obsession with Linux. I started the local Linux User's Group in spite of opposition from the local UNIX Special Interest Group (SIG), whose leader was less than thrilled that I would have the audacity to start such a group, when clearly Linux fans should be part of his group. No thanks. I didn't buy it then and I still don't.

Linux is different.

In the beginning, it was a reactive alternative to DOS, Windows, and all the commercial UNIX flavors—more of a, "Byte me, losers, I use Linux and there's nothing you can do about it" kind of thing. Its use was a reaction to the cookie-cutter, dronism of the day. I liked it at first because it made people mad and was subversive but I also liked it because it was cool.

Once I stopped my experimentation and rogue installations, including dual booting my corporate desktop system, I began shell scripting and creating automated processes. I also actually programmed my own Internet daemon and created my own distribution that began my technology writing career: Linux as a Windows Terminal Server Client (Sys Admin Magazine, November 2002).

The opposition began to subside once I saw increased corporate uptake for server farms, web services, hosting, and the virtualization explosion. Of course, no one remembered giving me excrement about how my work with Linux was pointless. Many of the original naysayers were now converts or, if you can believe it, experts who were into Linux from the early days. Yeah, right.

It doesn't matter now because we got what we wanted: mass Linux adoption. We did want that didn't we?

Somehow, though, the taste of victory was bittersweet, as I suppose it always is. I mean, we did want mass adoption and now that we have it, Linux, for me, has lost a bit of its original luster. But frankly, all operating systems have lost their luster. They don't hold the same fun that they once did nor do they hold my attention like they did back then. I seem to be growing weary of the next version and newest release of this or that distribution. It's a strange feeling because there was a time when I installed every new version of SUSE, Red Hat, Ubuntu, and Debian that hit the FTP servers.

No one argues anymore when you say that you're going to install a Linux system. No one threatens your job or your life if you dare put that "niche" operating system on the network. It's what we worked for—fought for—and got.

My undocumented, unapproved, and unwelcomed installations were not for naught. They meant something. They were good. My campaigning and outright soliciting for Linux had value. My initial cross-platform solution and all of my subsequent writings, including those for Linux Magazine, Linux Pro Magazine, ServerWatch, and many others, have great value. It's all part of history. My history. Linux history.

It's been years since I've heard the pretentious ring of, "Why don't you just do that on Windows?" It's been years since I've had to justify my right to use Linux. And it's even been a few years since the last time I had to correct someone's mispronunciation of Linux.

If you've gotten the feeling that I'm the type of person who must react against something for his motivation, you're correct. I need something to push against, something to argue about, and a cause to fight for. Linux was that last stand. I defended it against the Romulans and Philistines who came from every direction to oppose its use.

Now our blades have been beaten into blade enclosures. 

I've given up on the idea that Linux will ever make any inroads into the desktop OS market. I'm actually OK with that. As a server operating system, as a phone operating system, as a tablet operating system, and as a personal legacy, I have accomplished—along with thousands of others—what I set out to achieve all those years ago: Linux in the mainstream.

I have to thank Linus Torvalds for years of tormented joy. His "hobby" ended up being a life's work for myself and so many others. Eighteen years ago, I was just discovering the wonderous world of Linux and had little idea that it would bring me as far as it has.

I still love Linux. I still work with it every day. It is still very much a passion and a pursuit. But I no longer have to convince anyone of its features, stability, customizability, or flexibility as an operating system. I no longer have to offer it apologetically in tech circles nor do I have to wince just after saying Linux out loud around a group of Windows system administrators.

I can freely explore cross platform solutions and interoperability all I want, for as long as I wish, knowing that I will have a large, interested audience. It feels good, in a way, to be able to wear a Linux T-shirt without the feeling that I need to also wear those glasses that allow you to see who's behind you.

It's odd how the tides have changed. Once upon a time, when I wrote about Linux as an alternative, the comments were as rancid as they are now when I laud Windows or a Microsoft technology.

Linux is mainstream now and I have to get used to that. Perhaps Windows is the new Linux and I can embark on the pursuit of chasing Windows technologies and developing oddball and cool custom solutions on it. Maybe there's hope for me yet.

What do you think of mainstream Linux? Do you think it's replacing Windows as a mainstream OS or do you think they can survive, side-by-side in harmony? Talk back and let me know.

Topics: Linux, Cloud, Laptops, Ubuntu, Virtualization


Kenneth 'Ken' Hess is a full-time Windows and Linux system administrator with 20 years of experience with Mac, Linux, UNIX, and Windows systems in large multi-data center environments.

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  • I've been in since 2002

    We have had very different experiences!

    I love where we've got to, especially as a community - we now have an online community where noobs are helped by those that have learned themselves. Let us not forget those early forums and Irc rooms and mailing lists trying to get help as a noob waiting hours for another user to be online to respond, only for them to tell you to read the manual ( f optional). Now helping out in a friendly and helpful online forum is a right of passage in Linux usage.

    Then there's installing - 20 minutes all done. I'll say that again. 20 CONSECUTIVE MINUTES... On the same day. Oh I know, none of these noobs will experience the utter geeky joy of completing an install 3 days after you started and getting down to installing software. Note will they have to configure wireless cards from the CLI, DIY graphics drivers, etc. it was probably 2007 before I spent more time using Linux than getting it working. I too loved those days for what they were -experimental.

    There was a thousand ways of doing things and everything was backed by deep, almost religious philosophies and principles - new users probably don't understand why almost every bsd uses Qt and almost every Linux uses GTK.

    It's so much easier now, and we still have the likes of gentoo and LFS for the experimenters, but I don't really hark back - it's all rose tinted for times that can't be.

    We have more choice than ever before, we never have to cast "spells", you don't have to know TAR and MAKE just to get things done and no-one has to know what a "stage 2 tarball" is.

    The reality is is you want to live in the obscure there's BSD -particularly open and net, OpenIndianna, Minix, haiku and a thousand other projects. Linux has matured, and we now have all the benefits of a modern, catered for OS, with all the advantages and configurability of years past.
    • Re: I've been in since 2002

      Me, as a user and developer, since maybe 1999. As a sysadmin, since about 2003. Running it on my own machines since 2004, when I bought a Shuttle which came with a copy of Mandrake in the box.

      My office is now, and always has been, 100% Microsoft-Windows-free.
      • Linux is mainstream now...

        ... so talking about "alternative" is useless term.

        Operation system market share of Q1 2013:

        -smartphones: 216,3 million sold, 162,5 million were using Android Linux
        -tablets: 49,2 million sold, 27,8 million were using Android Linux
        -pc: 75-80 million sold, 28-30 million were using Windows 8

        total: 340-345 million new devices, over 190 million using Android Linux.

        Market share percentage:

        1. Android Linux 55-56%
        2. Apple operation systems 18-19%
        3. Windows 16-18%
        4. Others 9-11% (including other Linux systems)

        Even if all the non-Macs/non-ChromeBook pc were using Windows the rate between Android Linux and Windows is now 2,5:1. 85-90% of all kind of servers and supercomputers are using Linux.

        Conclusion: Linux is the mainstream now. Case closed!
        Napoleon XIV
  • Still somewhat subversive

    A glance at the Talkbacks on any given day should be enough to convince one of that.
    John L. Ries
    • Depends on one's choices

      Those running a free GNU/Linux distro sanctioned by are subversive (as Richard Stallman, IMO, continues to be subversive). Here's the list:

      One can easily run Debian and other distros this way too. With Debian, one simply chooses not to install packages from the non-free and multimedia repositories. And with Ubuntu, there's an option during the install to use only free software (at least with 12.04).

      Similarly, one can be subversive with OpenBSD as this project has much in common with (I know, OpenBSD is not GNU/Linux), licenses aside. An easier path, IMO, but still subversive, is to use Debian GNU/kFreeBSD (also not GNU/Linux).

      Android is certainly mainstream including popular distros from Google, members of the Open Handset Alliance, Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Whereas those individuals using aftermarket Android distros (e.g., CyanogenMod is probably the best known) on their smartphones and tablets are subversives. The Replicant project is a good example of an aftermarket Android distro for FOSS advocates taking after Richard Stallman. Subversive.

      Those using a MeeGo-based smartphone (the Nokia N9) are subversive. It's Linux, but it's not Android.

      And, finally, those choosing to jailbreak their iPod, iPhone, iPad and Surface RT are subversives (I know, iOS is UNIX and Windows RT is neither Linux nor UNIX).

      There are plenty of subversives around today. Linux and otherwise.
      Rabid Howler Monkey
      • What I meant to say was...

        ...there are still segments of the industry that view both Linux and the free software movement in general with extreme suspicion, and/or disdain, as seen daily in the ZDNet Talkbacks.. Some of this is, no doubt, bought and paid for by companies with a vested interest in the status quo, but I don't think anywhere near all of it is; and the shill posts would still reflect the fears of the managers who pay for them.

        Certainly Linux attracts a disproportionate share of non-conformists and malcontents (not surprisingly), which will likely continue for the foreseeable future.
        John L. Ries
        • We can compare the rivals Modern Humans vs. Neanderthals...

          ... some 50 000 years ago. Neanderthal was actually almost totally died out when first modern humans arrived to Europe. Those remnants never managed to adopt new way of life fast enough. They were marginalized and wiped out.

          Microsoft is The Neanderthal of our time. Too slow, too clumsy and too backward to adopt new way of living. This is IT evolution and Redmond is doomed to die out.
          Napoleon XIV
  • From subversive to mainstream: Looking back on 18 years with Linux

    Its been 18 years and this is as far as linux has got. Time to stop wasting resources on development and just retire the linux project. In that 18 years you would think they would have fixed some of the most annoying aspects of it. But no, linux users still have to suffer through such things as constant compilation of the kernel and applications, plugging the telnet hole, sound that plays only one at a time, and fix the library hell. Almost forgot the fragmentation. Your apps that you compile on one version of linux won't work on another.

    "From its original concept way back in 1991, to its near world domination in 2013"
    No where near world domination.

    "Its positive impact on computing cannot be denied."
    What positive impact? Everyone I know that has tried linux hated it ranging from PCs to tablets to cell phones. My coworker is always swearing at his linux devices. Now that I think about it linux has made no impact on computing. It copied every single one of its ideas and its whole conception from others.

    "It doesn't matter now because we got what we wanted: mass Linux adoption. We did want that didn't we?"
    No and I don't see the mass adoption. Linux devices are still few.

    "No one argues anymore when you say that you're going to install a Linux system. No one threatens your job or your life if you dare put that "niche" operating system on the network."
    Try putting a linux device on our network and see how fast it gets pulled off and you have a talk with HR.

    I think you are over emphasizing just how little linux is really being used in this blog post. None of your experiences can I relate to. Even when I ask others they said the same thing and their experiences with linux were nothing like you said. They all had short durations with linux before ditching it.
    • Why did you even read it?

      Surely with Xbox one announced there's enough articles tailored to your needs? You must have known there'd be nothing here for you?

      It's like me joining in a discussion about Mama Mia because all the women of the house loved it - I know I'm going to object to all their favourite bits, so why ruin the fun. I have however seen the film so I know I don't like it. I'd advise you give Linux Mint 15 a go when it releases.
      • Because people need to know linux isn't all its cracked up to be

        So I need to correct a lot of the misinformation being spread about linux and warn people of the dangers of using it.
        • But you don't know?

          Your examples are misleading out of date and even incorrect.

          Why spread misinformation, when if you are correct they will try it, hate it and never use it again?

          Maybe if you try it, you can find some relevant ammunition against the OS?
          • you are wasting your time with loverock

            he is a classic troll, chuckling at his PC as unsuspecting linux users get all frustrated at the BS comments. He has some deep seated hatred of linux (maybe Linus did one of his famous profanity laden rants on him for submitting crappy kernel patches?) and is seeking out revenge in these forums.
        • In other words...

          ...this is a holy war against Linux and the free software movement. I'm glad to see you make that admission.
          John L. Ries
          • At least one of his

            Microsoft coworkers uses Linux: "My coworker is always swearing at his linux devices."

            Or maybe that coworker is the Softy who drew the short straw and got the job of trying to figure out what Linux is for his boss....

            Funny how things that Microsoft fails at, like being an advertising/search success become “all the evil in the world” that the minions are dispatched to spread FUD about. It is comical because they are so bad at it and make little sense to anybody.
    • Loverock-Davidson....your post is so outdated...I suggest you seek help

      as you really do have problems mentally.

      Your rants about open tellnet and compiling anything are so absurd in todays Linux word .....why are you still posting that nonese? Anyone in the IT world is going to know from the get go that you have a few screws loose some where............

      get some help Loverock
      Over and Out
      • Same thing said on every post....

        open telent, whatever. Hasn't apparently used Linux lately. Just wants to rile everybody up/ Dislike what he says? Leave him alone, sooner or later he will tire of saying the same things, over and over and over and over.
    • I think you are secretly in love with Linux

      That open "telnet hole" turns you on.
    • What is your problem?

      Prove that you do anything in IT other than stalk articles about Linux. I could respond in detail to your drivel, but that would be a waste of my time. I understand if you wish to haunt SJVN because you and he are the yin and yang of trolls. But why would need to post on this blog? Hess wrote a nice positive article about his 18 years of experience in Linux and did not go out of his way to put down any other OS. Why do you have to respond with nothing but lies and hate.

      You embarrass yourself every time you post anything about Linux. All you do is display absolute ignorance about the topic. Get a life for yourself beyond the basement.
    • You mean that technical details in your corp are DECIDED by HR?

      No, suprise your "coworkers" swear on Linux then... HR is always watching you know ;)
    • What is it with your kernel compilation fetish?

      Linux installs graphically, just like any other OS. Until Windows 8 simplified the install, there were some Linux distros that were even easier to install than Windows 7!

      Isn't it time you retired that line?