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Enough about bloody Apple

If it weren’t for a certain resignation* at Cupertino, CA, every geek and his dog would be quoting this Usenet post from twenty years ago today:

“From: torvalds@klaava.Helsinki.FI (Linus Benedict Torvalds)
Newsgroups: comp.os.minix
Subject: What would you like to see most in minix?
Summary: small poll for my new operating system
Message-ID: <1991Aug25.205708.9541@klaava.Helsinki.FI>
Date: 25 Aug 91 20:57:08 GMT
Organization: University of Helsinki

Hello everybody out there using 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 onthings 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 (torvalds@kruuna.helsinki.fi)

PS. Yes – it’s free of any minix code, and it has a multi-threaded fs.

It is NOT protable (uses 386 task switching etc), and it probably never will support anything other than AT-harddisks, as that’s all I have :-(

Two decades on, and there are six seven running copies** of that kernel in this very room: two desktops, a netbook, a cellphone, an eBook reader, and a Freeview STB and a little ARM-based file server. Not bad for a hobby without The Steve’s marketing savvy.

And a spectacular example of individual effort and voluntary co-operation. Much is sometimes made by opponents of free and open source software of the fact that Torvalds’s parents were (whisper it) socialists. Well, I don’t know Linus’s politics (he’s careful not to say too much these days), but he’s certainly talked in the past of how projects like this thrive on enlightened self interest – if you don’t get paid directly (although most kernel hackers these days are employed as such by various firms) you fix bugs and add features because you want them yourself – and yes, he did use Smith’s expression.

I recently read the second volume of Steven Fry’s autobiography, which covers his discovery of computers. Alas, by the end of this one he’s a commited Acolyte of St. Steve, along with his good chum the late Douglas Adams. I’d have posted this passage on its own, I expect, if this anniversary hadn’t come along:

For some people, computers, digital devices and machines of that nature will be functional objects whose purpose is to serve by performing specifically needed tasks. If there is a little tweaking required to ensure that such functions can be better fulfilled, then so be it: let there be a little tweaking. For other people, people like Douglas and me, tweaking is the function. Using a computer to write a book, fill in tax returns or print out an invoice is something you could do, but how much less fun than messing around.

Today’s post-1997 Apple is unequivocally for the former type of person (although, as Fry can attest, it wasn’t always thus). Linux was, and is, made by the latter. Here’s to the next two decades of messing around.

*Surely he didn’t time his announcement to spoil Linux’s birthday? I have a suspicious turn of mind…

**And several hundred copies on various CDs, DVDs and USB sticks.

Edit: Forgot about my server. Seven Linux kernels.

3 Comments

  1. Ian B says:

    I’ve never got into Linux. I’ve become more and more, as I’ve got older, someone who uses technology rather than twiddles with it, sorry to say. It’s a long time since i sat for hours figuring out how to use the Stack to rapidly clear the Display File, haha. But I still get a buzz from knowing how to do it :)

    So for me, Windows is a good compromise. I still get a computer I can take to bits and upgraded and so on when I want to- my machine is now very old and entirely reconfigured from when I first had it; the PATA RAID on the mobo is long disabled, replaced with a SATA RAID card and drives, for instance. But it’s not so geeky as Linux and runs software I rely on, like Photoshop, so it’s the right choice for me. I’ve always idly mused about getting a Linux box to geek around with, but have just got no time for Geeking any more. I’ve even thought of putting a twee wooden sign on my front door; “Dungeekin’”. :)

  2. Sam Duncan says:

    Heh. And fair enough. There are too many loud Linux/FOSS advocates who seem to think it’s some kind of crusade. It works for us, and I think there are a lot of people it would work for if they gave it a chance. But if it doesn’t, fine. Lack of market share might bother Red Hat, Canonical, Google, et al (well, maybe not so much Google these days), but the whole point of the code is that it’s just there: use it if you like.

    I sometimes think of it like a language. Linguaphone and Rosetta Stone are trying to sell you something, but the words and grammar don’t care whether you use them or not, and neither (for the most part) do the people who already do.

    One thing I forgot to mention in the post is that with the exception of the desktop machines, all those devices were bought with Linux already on them (Android in the case of the phone). That’s the really amazing thing. It may have “failed” as a competitor to MS Windows, but it’s everywhere. On my router too, of course, but that’s in another room.

  3. David Gillies says:

    If I can’t program it, it’s not a real computer. I use Windows, sure, for browsing the Web like I’m doing now. But I program my Mac and Linux boxes. And of the two, it’s undoubtedly easier to make full-on GUI apps under MacOS (and making command line apps is near-identical on both.) I’d have to learn Visual Studio or Delphi or somesuch under Windows, and install CygWin, and life’s too short. I want to be able to open a terminal, type g++ xxx.cpp -o yyy and get an executable where I can do pretty much anything I want.

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