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Don't let a FUD cloud rain on your parade! - part 2

Date/Time Permalink: 08/27/06 06:29:26 am
Category: LINKS and Lists

Just two days ago, the GNU/Linux operating system celebrated it's 15th birthday. It was on Sunday, August 25th, 1991 that a Finnish programming student posted to the Usenet group comp.os.minix:

I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu) 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).

And a legend was born. Linux has since climbed to amazing heights for a "hobby" operating system. The GNU licensing and GNU utilities made a winning combination with Linux from which much innovation has come forth. And that's a little area I'd like to focus on this time. For instance, where were other operating systems on their 15th birthday?

Obviously, I'm going to compare with Microsoft. Microsoft started with QDOS in 1980, then redid it as MS-DOS in 1981. Up until this point, Microsoft had been a "programming language company", and then branched out into a full operating system. So you may see this as a parallel with how Linux started, first with a GNU compiler and the Bash shell. It took both systems a while to discover the GUI environment.

Later, in 1985, Microsoft Windows was released as Microsoft's first attempt at providing a consistent user interface (for applications). The early versions of Windows ran on top of MS-DOS and its clones. At first Windows met with little success, but this was also true for most other companies' efforts as well, for example GEM. After version 3.0, Windows gained marked acceptance.

It's easy to peg Microsoft's OS' 15th year aniversary: count 15 years forward from 1980 and you get Windows '95. Before this time, Microsoft had still had substantial competition from the DR-DOS and PC-DOS based systems; Windows 95 could be said to be the version that made Windows truly popular on the desktop. Today's Windows interface differs very little from the Windows 95 formula, though experimental ideas such as Microsoft Bob have since fallen by the wayside.

There are many other system I could cite, such as IBM's OS/2, BeOS, Apple, or Amiga... but there's hardly fair comparison. Apple is mainly a hardware company, so their operating system progress is incidental; it's quite good, and I remember it fondly before I ever saw Linux, but it's just outside our current scope. BeOS, also a hardware-oriented company, started the same year as Linux, but has since been declared dead, much of a shame as that fact is. Amiga, born in 1985, dies an infant's death well before it's 15th year. And if anybody thinks OS/2 still has a hat in the ring, they're welcome to continue thinking that.

The only comparable story is told by...guess what?...BSD, the Berkely Software Distribution of Unix, and itself another kind of Open-Source system. BSD officially started in 1977, and like Linux and Apple is still going strong today. Progress of BSD has been much in parallel with Linux, and to this day the two systems share GNU user-land tools and many of the same desktops; in fact, BSD utilities can frequently be found in Linux distros and vice-versa. I'm on record with at least one BSD live review that BSD could have been in Linux's place; you could toss a coin at any point to say who comes out ahead. Linux is merely better-known and more diversified.

This little report gives us a reference point. Linux has so far had a track record not as commercially successful as Microsoft's, but outside of that has either out-lived or kept pace with every peer. Note that many of the commercial systems that failed did so because the company failed, and since there wasn't an open/free community to it, then that was that. The exception is Solaris, which was teetering on the edge of demise when Sun made it open and hey, presto, it's suddenly on home-user desktops in three major distributions, each of which show remarkable progress.

A lesson we may learn here, is the Open Source and Free licensing may be the formula for operating-system immortality. How do you kill a system that isn't a commercial company? You could wipe out every Linux distribution today, and as long as a single CD or server of the source code exists, somebody can pick up where it was left off tomorrow. FOSS operates on a different time-line. Consider the mighty Firefox browser - it has won a substantial audience and introduced innovations to the browser concept at a simply rabid pace, yet just five short years ago, who ever heard of Firefox?

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