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Linux Turns 30: The Evolution of Open Source

Graham Turner

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Linux birthday
Linux – the OS that changed the game, turned 30 on August 25th. DIGIT takes a look at how it started an open source revolution.

On this day in 1991, 21-year-old Finnish student Linus Benedict Torvalds announced on the comp.os.minix news group that he was working on a free operating system (OS) for 386(486) AT clones as a “hobby.”

This would eventually become Linux Kernel, an OS that started something of an open source revolution, changing the mindset of accepting the established products of those with the biggest marketing budgets, or tightest security, as ‘the best’.

While it started out as a (better) alternative OS, mainly leveraged by computing enthusiasts, it has grown to be utilised in an astounding amount of devices.

Today, there are literally hundreds of Linux distributions or, as it’s more commonly known as, distros of popular and well-known Linux OSes, these are utilised in things like your Android smartphone, Amazon Alexa and Google Home smart assistants, big screen TV, smart fridge, smart lights, and especially your Wi-Fi router.


What is open source?

While Linux can certainly be attributed with the popularisation of open source – and even the broader fundamentals behind the democratisation of technology, it’s creator, Torvalds, wasn’t the progenitor of the concept.

That honour belongs to Richard Stallman, known as “the father of open source”. He believed everyone deserved to freely and openly collaborate with others using software. In 1983, he introduced the GNU project, the first free operating system, and in 1985, he followed with the creation of the Free Software Foundation to further support the burgeoning community.

That idea of freedom and collaboration is the backbone of open source and the foundational principle of Linux. In many ways, it is similar to other operating systems such as Windows, macOS or iOS. Functionally, they serve the same purpose but with some key differences, open source being the main driver of these differences.


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This means that the code used to create Linux is free and available to the public to view, edit, and – if you have the know-how – you can iterate upon the code that’s already there to improve it.

It’s also different in that, although the core pieces of the Linux operating system are generally the same, there are many distros of Linux, which include different software options.

This means that Linux is – essentially – infinitely customisable, because pretty much every application and process within it can be changed or swapped out to meet your preference.

It’s not hyperbole to say that Linux inspired a generation of tech enthusiasts who have themselves gone on to greatness.

The popularisation of open source

In the wake of the proliferation of Linux, even beyond the hardcore computing subset, there was an increasing frustration with the tried-and-true business model of the distribution of software.

Companies were starting to go to extremes to protect their creations – for example, the inclusion of a hardware key – ensuring they were bought legitimately.

There’s even software legends (or myths, depending on your take), like the story that the Lotus 123 spreadsheet software ended up losing out to Excel because the latter was much easier to pirate, thus became the more familiar norm. (Needs re-working I think.)

Myths aside, the traditional business model of selling software was hampering innovation (even though workarounds like shareware were popular for a while).

Open source really came into its own when it established itself as a viable business model on its own. This was undoubtedly led by the success of companies like the IBM-acquired RedHat, GitLab, and many many others, who showed that offering extra services and providing additional, commercial features or dual license in an open-source project is completely viable.

There was a realisation across the industry that open source is where innovation happens. Thanks to that, things like the Android Open Source Project by Google, React Native by Facebook, or Kubernetes, developed originally in Google, now exist.

Collaboration and communication have become core tenets of tech. Software that allows iteration can be built around custom requirements, and personal specifications have become the norm.

Linux, open source, and the democratisation of technology has come a long way since its days of being something of a computing sub-culture. It’s good and bad aspects dominate headlines now, with the power to change, optimise and refine essential software becoming both technological liberator and its hostage, in some respects.

So, happy birthday, Linux, the next 30 years are likely to be even more interesting.

Graham Turner

Sub Editor

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