Who wrote Linux?

Who wrote Linux?

Summary: commentary Recent disputes over the authorship of Linux are missing an extremely obvious point. Has nobody noticed?

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TOPICS: Open Source, Linux
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commentary Recent disputes over the authorship of Linux are missing an extremely obvious point. Has nobody noticed?

You sort of have to feel sorry for Richard Stallman. Poor old RMS, sitting in his dingy office in the comp sci building at MIT, issuing proclamations about the difference between free software and open source software, and insisting that everyone call Linux "GNU/Linux", worrying that the efforts of the GNU Project might be forgotten. But perhaps he has a point.
It took Tanenbaum three years to write Minix, and he had had access to the Unix source code while he was doing it, the report explains. Torvalds wrote Linux in only six months, without any access to the original Unix. What is he, supergeek?


You may have been following the story that broke in late May, about a report published by Ken Brown, president of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, claiming Linus Torvalds didn't write Linux. Instead, it suggests he rewrote the code from Minix, a Unix clone designed by Andrew Tanenbaum at Vrije University in Amsterdam. It took Tanenbaum three years to write Minix, and he had had access to the Unix source code while he was doing it, the report explains. Torvalds wrote Linux in only six months, without any access to the original Unix. What is he, supergeek?

Why are companies licensing Unix source code "if it is as simple as writing it from scratch with little help or experience?" the report postulates. "Is it possible that building a Unix operating system really only takes a few months -- and, oh by the way, you don't even need the source code to do it?"

Naturally, the response from the Linux community was hostile, and not surprisingly it was suggested the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution is a Microsoft front. This is the classic Linuxhead reasoning that goes "this Institution said something bad about Linux, Microsoft doesn't like Linux, therefore Microsoft must have paid them under the table to say it". But subsequent statements from Tanenbaum and Torvalds, among others, reveal the report to be sensationalist fact-free nonsense aimed at either raising the profile of the Institution, damaging Linux, or both.

However, the report is 100 percent correct on one point: Linus Torvalds did not write Linux. This is where Richard Stallman comes into the picture. For years Stallman has been campaigning for people to say "Linux" when referring to the kernel that was originally written by Torvalds, and to say "GNU/Linux" when referring to Linux the operating system. Unfortunately for Stallman, we suspect the horse has already bolted on this one; most people use "Linux" to refer to the entire operating system, no matter how historically inaccurate it is.

When you install Linux on your PC, you're not only installing the kernel -- the bit that tells the software how to talk to the processor, memory, and hardware -- you're also installing compilers, editors, Web servers, e-mail programs, and a lengthy list of other applications. Torvalds hardly wrote any of them. When Torvalds started distributing Linux in 1991, a large proportion of the software he bundled along with it was written by the GNU Project.

GNU was started by Stallman in 1984 with the vision "to develop a complete UNIX style operating system which is free software". Between 1984 and 1991, Stallman and his colleagues had developed a fairly complete library of Unix-style software. What it lacked was a workable kernel, and this is what Torvalds took six months to write in 1991.

So when the study suggests it was impossible for Torvalds to have written Linux in the time he did, it completely ignores that Torvalds didn't write Linux. Or at least he didn't write GNU/Linux. The GNU Project had seven years of work on its Unix style OS by 1991, which would seem to indicate a few more person-hours were involved in GNU/Linux than Tanenbaum's three-year effort on Minix.

It astounds me that in all the punditry following this report, no one has thought to point out this obvious mistake. But then, considering the number of Linux enthusiasts who weren't even born in 1984, it's no wonder this all seems like ancient history.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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Topics: Open Source, Linux

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  • > However, the report is 100 percent correct on one point: Linus Torvalds did not write Linux. This is where Richard Stallman comes into the picture.

    Of course he didn't. Thousands of other people did (today's version, that is). RMS does not come into Linux (the kernel) picture at all, you are just trying to confuse people that don't know any better. The fact that people refer to the whole OS as "Linux" means absolutely nothing.

    > Torvalds wrote Linux in only six months, without any access to the original Unix. What is he, supergeek?

    I'm just not sure why are you warming up this vomit from Ken Brown, when every single person he interviewed told him that what Linus did himself was entirely possible. Remember, the Linux kernel of today is an entirely different beast that the kernel Linus originally wrote. But you didn't actually check to see how many lines of code that was, did you? Just FUD-ing, are we?

    > Naturally, the response from the Linux community was hostile, and not surprisingly it was suggested the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution is a Microsoft front.

    Let's say I call you a liar and a cheat - would you become hostile? What Ken Brown is suggesting here is that Linux developers (including Linus) pinched someone's code, all while he's go zero proof to back that up. Just like the sad company by the name of SCO, that produced exactly zero lines of System V code during the discovery in the IBM case.

    Please, lay off it already.
    anonymous
  • Well there is not much chance I will ever be subscribing to the "Technology & Business Magazine" if this is an example of the quality of your reporting and opinions.
    anonymous
  • Wow, there is no much to pick apart, I hardly know where to begin...
    Let's start with the basics. Linus wrote the the initial portion of the Kernel (which roughly had enough functionality to mount a floppy drive) in 6 months. What's so hard to belive about that? Then he released the code to programmers and suggested they use the gcc compiler. If you want to call that packadging with tons of GNU tools, well ok. Linux has become the capable OS it is today not because of any "Magnificient Code", but from the way it was released. The free trade of ideas has allowed thousands of briliant minds to come together, not just one man. The real problem with the Ken Brown report is that THIS is the part he ignores. We are the authors and Linus started us.
    Linux should *NOW* be called GNU\Linux because it is *NOW* packadged with GNU tools. Linux people believe in freedom, GNU believes in freedom, it is a perfect fit.
    Next, the reason the FOSS community thinks Microsoft "may" be behind the report is because of the fact that Microsoft is a major contributor to the organization that released the paper. The facts on this can be found at www.groklaw.net.

    Finally, to insult Linux users as "fanatics" and insinuate that we all are younger than 20 is a low brow tactic that only further proves how little you know and how base your reporting capabilities truely are. Many of us have been around since the inception on Linux and worked as Unix admins before it's release. I and several of my friends are more than likely older than you. It is not ignorance that keeps us from giving him the credit for "creating" Linux, rather it is the exact opposite. We know where Linux came from. From our community and from Linus. We have not forgotten Mr. Stallman's contributions to our community, his ideas and his tools are forever a part of Linux and we are greatfull. But to try to make him the author of Linux is insulting to everyone, including Mr. Stallman.
    I assume you did as much research as Ken Brown did, and by that I mean none.
    anonymous
  • Now let me see.... Several of my Professional IT friends and I are Linux enthusiasts... And I, like my friends were in our 30's in 1984.

    And according to Mr. Mehlman: "considering the number of Linux enthusiasts who weren't even born in 1984" ....

    Oh, I get it. It would take a very mature and experienced mind to realize that Linux is NOT an obvious choice. Windows is the choice of mature and experienced professionals.

    I know it's a stretch, But I still feel like I've been insulted.
    anonymous
  • People who don't know history from rumor make up their own twisted history:

    For the record; what Linus Torvalds released on the Internet as the "Linux Kernel" was hardly a workable kernel -certanily not Minix! Minix was leaps ahead of Linus' sickly imitation. One would think if he copied Minix code that it would have worked at least (or almost) as well.

    As touching the "super-geek" comment, YES - Some People are smarter than others - much to the chagrin of small insecure egos.
    anonymous
  • Dear Mr. Mehlman,

    As I can see, you do not have the slightest idea of what Linus Torvalds wrote in tnat little period, from 1991-1992. You do not have any idea of how many people contributed to the original little piece of kernel code. In resume: You do not have idea of what are you writing about.

    I born far before 1984, you seem to be born 5 or 6 years ago.

    Read, read! Suggestions? Just 2 to begin:

    "The Cathedral and The Bazzar" by Eric S. Raymnond

    "The Revel Code" by Glyn Moody

    By the way, I recibed an email by Richard M. Stallman. In it, he comments that it is easier to theach something to Bush than to the Alexis de Toqueville Institution. He also say, among other things, that The adti has tergiversed his words and writings.

    He will make public the letter very soon.

    And, as I said you before, Mr.... whoever, Read, read, read before write.

    Andr
    anonymous
  • I especially love the unqualified comment on the number of GNU/Linux afficionados who 'hadn't even been born in 1984'. I don't know about the rest of you, but when I walk around and talk to people who'd been born in 1980 and later, I really don't see many Linux users -- what I see are click-monkeys who only know "Windows/Word/Excel/Powerpoint" because that's what they toyed with at school. Some exceptional people may produce mature enough code by the age of 20 that they can contribute to the kernel (after all I was an assembler programmer by 13) but the 20-and younger generation are probably not the largest group within the Linux community. I'd say they're the age group who quite happily pirate Microsoft software (and I believe it's in the interest of Free Software to combat piracy).
    anonymous
  • I'll admit to phrasing the following sentence poorly: "When Torvalds started distributing Linux in 1991, a large proportion of the software he bundled along with it was written by the GNU Project." The timing is not correct. By the time Linux became a full operating system, not just a kernel, a lot of the tools bundled with it were GNU tools. I'm not entirely confident to put a date on that, but I'm sure one of the readers can fill us in. Certainly by the time I came across Linux, around 1993-4, a lot of people had worked on the kernel and the rest of the operating system.
    This is not the point.
    The ADTI argues that Linus couldn't possibly have written a whole operating system in the time that he did. All I'm saying is he didn't write a whole operating system, and it's entirely possible for him to have written the basic kernel in the time he did.
    And all those people who accuse me of promoting or apologising for the ADTI report, I thought calling it "sensationalist fact-free nonsense" was pretty unequivocal. But then fanatics see what they want to see and ignore anything that contradicts . . .
    And gee, I'm astounded to hear there are Linux users who are over 20 - NOT! You have to admit Linux attracts the young and hotheaded. And, it appears, the old and hotheaded as well.
    Either way, a sense of perspective is helpful -- and that doesn't mean admitting "Windows is the choice of mature and experienced professionals", it means using the right tool for the job and realising Linux is just a bit of software that runs your computer, not a religion.
    anonymous
  • "So when the study suggests it was impossible for Torvalds to have written Linux in the time he did, it completely ignores that Torvalds didn't write Linux. Or at least he didn't write GNU/Linux."

    I think Mr Mehlman is not being unfair here. His article appears to me to be critical of the Brown report.
    However to suggest that Linux enthusiasts are not aware of history is a bit shallow. I think most of them are aware of the difference between the kernel and GNU/Linux. By the way, I was writing assembler code in the 1980's and studying Unix. I'm sure there are thousands of old goats like me still around who appreciate the work of Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman.
    anonymous
  • I'd just like to say I feel insulted that people tend to think that unless you grew up in the
    '70s that all you can do is run Microsoft Windows. I was born in 1982 and have used more operating systems and programs than most computer teachers know exists.
    Stallman didn't write Linux, his contribution to the world has been GNU. Just because most Linux distributors ship them with their package doesn't mean they have to call it GNU/Linux. They don't even have to call it Linux. If I wanted I could take a copy of Mandrake, repackage it and call it Bill. I have the right under the GPL to do that, as long as I satisfied the license terms. The whole flamewar over what it should be called should have died along time ago. Stop trying to bring it back. Torvalds wrote the original Linux kernel that wasn't even up to Minix callibur. It took many people, all around the world, to create the Linux kernel of today. The world "owns" Linux, Torvalds just owns the name. He is still running the show because people want him to, because he is respected and known to do a good job. If he wasn't the community would replace him. What's the point of trying to confuse people with stories of who owns what and who wrote what?

    I apologise if I warmed anyone's pants too much there.
    anonymous
  • And Bill Gates didn't actually write DOS. He bought the basic software from a computer company in Seattle!!!
    anonymous
  • This article contain quite a few factorial errors, which Mr. Mehlman appears to have overseen. Instead of going into a long answer, I would like to ask Mr. Mehlman to read Andrew Tannenbaums answers to Mr. Brown of AdTI. To quote from his homepage (http://www.cs.vu.nl/~ast/brown/rebuttal/):

    "All in all, Brown's only argument is that he, personally, doesn't believe a 21-year-old kid could have written an operating system kernel in a year, despite the fact that half a dozen other people had done the same thing earlier and the code Linus wrote wasn't all that great initially. And faced with a whole bunch of people telling him otherwise and the consultant he hired to examine the code saying the code is completely different from MINIX, Brown just ignores all the facts and persists in his belief."
    anonymous
  • I am 66 years old.
    I bought my first personal computer in 1985.
    It was not a PC running Microsoft.
    I have been using Linux since 1966.
    I abandoned Microsoft in 1992, because Bill Gates is an a**hole.
    I have friends near my age who use Linux.
    You don't have any knowledge of what you talk about, so why do you write at all?
    You are typical of Ziff Davis writers: ignorant or disingenuous.
    anonymous
  • That is about as accurate as saying Bill Gates wrote Windows and all of the other software that comes with it. Of course Linus didn't write all of Linux, and to claim he did would just be stupid. Is Josh suggesting that he stole the code from Minux? We all know Bill never stole code from anyone :)
    anonymous
  • > The ADTI argues that Linus couldn't possibly have written a whole operating system in the time that he did. All I'm saying is he didn't write a whole operating system, and it's entirely possible for him to have written the basic kernel in the time he did.

    The ADTI argues that Linus must have stolen the code from Minix (although they were explicitly told he didn't by the person that ran the comparison), because there would be no other way for him to write Linux (which is the already made opinion they were hired to "prove"). By bringing in the confusion over the name of the whole OS, you aren't actually anwsering the question from your text's title: "Who wrote Linux?" You are just introducing more confusion for people that don't understand the difference anyhow.

    > Either way, a sense of perspective is helpful -- and that doesn't mean admitting "Windows is the choice of mature and experienced professionals", it means using the right tool for the job and realising Linux is just a bit of software that runs your computer, not a religion.

    See? That's exactly what gets you the hostile comments like mine. You just write things without thinking. If you really wanted to answer the question "Who wrote Linux?", why didn't you actually do a bit of research and told us what happened, how the comparisons with other code bases turned out, how big/complicated the original kernel was etc., rather than try to confuse things with introduction of RMS, FSF and GNU, which have very little to do with the issue at hand.

    Let me put things in perspective for you. Here is a sentence from ADTI web site that tells us what Linux is:

    "Linux is a leprosy; and is having a deleterious effect on the U.S. IT industry because it is steadily depreciating the value of the software industry sector."

    Or this statement from Ken Brown:

    "It's clear to me, at least from quotes from Tanenbaum, that Linus started from Minix...He just sat down with Minix and wrote this product. By definition, that is not an invention," Brown said. "If you sit down with the Ford blueprints and build a Chrysler and don't give Ford any credit, that's not invention."

    Now, with these quotes in mind, don't you think that you should have approached the whole issue differently? Something along the lines of "ADTI has an agenda...". IMHO, you're putting way too much weight on what ADTI concluded about the whole thing - they did so because they had to do it based on their already made opinions, not research. So, you could have mentioned them in 1 sentence (maybe), not go on and on with confusion (not to mention the sidebar with "It took Tanenbaum three years to write Minix...", which puts emphasis on controversy). Why does it have to be a controversy when everyone that checked just a few simple facts knows that there isn't one? Why intruduce another set of variables (RMS/GNU/FSF), when they have very little to do with the actual question?

    I think you got back what you deserved. People don't want to read rubbish with no substance. If you really want to answer "Who wrote Linux?", then please do so. Provide facts and then state your opinion.
    anonymous
  • "it means using the right tool for the job and realising Linux is just a bit of software that runs your computer"

    You're quite wrong on that point. Linux is much more than "just a bit of software". Linux has become the spearhead of an industrial, economical and perhaps even political revolution that's certain to sweep the world, as it is doing even now. The genie is well out of the bottle. Linux may not be a religion, but it has become at least in part the product of philosophy.

    Linux is also a very nice bit of software. I have yet to encounter a job for which it has not been a most suitable tool.
    anonymous
  • Fools rushes in where angels fear to tread. Well 'fools' like Mehlman, Ken Brown et al seem to be in a detective role of finding out who wrote linux. These 'ignorants' should better find out 'who wrote windoze' the most horrible piece of crap that took away millions from the mass.
    Well. Here we go. Another bullshit story from zdnet the M$ 'bootlickers'.
    anonymous
  • Seems that Mr Mehlman needs to do some research 'again'.
    This isn't the first time Josh.
    It doesn't take much time to do, and all the points covered by the other feedback authors were easily found and verified in a short time.

    Like most journalists today, Josh just takes the easy way out, copies work from other sources without any verification, and sticks his name at the bottom.

    We used to get marks taken off for this sort of thing when I was at school...
    anonymous
  • Some of the comments by the Editor and writer of this article are offensive and insulting to the knowledge ofo those who actually work in the industry as I do.

    I would suggest that one do more research before placing an article up for public view. At best it degrades you image if you do not.

    You might want to start at:

    http://www.groklaw.net/article.php?story=20040610033013625&query=adti
    http://www.groklaw.net/article.php?story=20040527170120747&query=adti
    http://www.groklaw.net/article.php?story=20040611141310910&query=adti
    http://www.groklaw.net/article.php?story=20040601212559558&query=adti
    http://www.groklaw.net/article.php?story=20040614232501302&query=adti
    anonymous
  • Josh, don't take comments people put in here too seriously. I read some of the comments and it is clear they didn't read to the end of the article and got defensive and wrote a repy straight away.. It's funny (I think) that people are very quick to point out their point of view and their achivements (like our 13yr old programmer friend) and forget that this article isn't a putdown of any operating systems or people's achievements. There is no point arguing which is better or worse, or what I have achieved, etc.. This article from what I can tell merely points out that people see one line out of context and jump to conclusions about what they thought the person was trying to argue, rather than what they were actually saying..

    Just remember, people individually can be smart, but people in groups usually have one leader and so therefore logically most people are just sheep following the whims of an individual. Moral: Use your brain and think about things, rather than just rant. hmmm... I better stop before I start ranting... grins...
    anonymous