The history of Linux: how time has shaped the penguin
22nd Nov 2012 | 10:00
A nostalgic look back at Linux, its distros and its colourful history
As we sit in front of the latest version of Ubuntu, Fedora or SUSE, revelling in the glorious animated desktops, taking pleasure in the ease-of-use the GUI grants and enjoying the fact that most of our hardware works out of the box, do we ever wonder how on Earth our favourite operating system got to this point?
Do we consider and appreciate the amount of time and effort that a long list of developers have taken in reaching this Zen-like state of man and OS? Most likely, not.
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A quick reminisce of Linux distros long gone made us think about the history of this wonderful OS, and its journey over the last couple of decades. When was it born? How did it evolve? What distros stand out in history as the pivotal turning point that changed a humble bedroom project into the desktop OS we have today? And which poor distros fell by the wayside as failed, crumpled heaps?
Let's, then, take a step back in time as we embark upon a chronological look at Linux, and see how history has shaped the mighty penguin.
In the beginning, there was Unix, created by the bearded ones, Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie, in 1969. After that, throughout the eighties, a number of projects started life, all based on the encompassing vision that is Unix.
From Richard Stallman's GNU Project, the Berkley Software Distribution (BSD), the book Operating Systems: Design and Implementation by Professor Andrew S Tanenbaum, through to MINIX (Mini-Unix), which was released to the academic world in conjunction with the aforementioned book.
But it wasn't until 1991 that a young Finnish student called Linus Torvalds would combine all he had learnt from the those landmark systems into a kernel that would take the world by storm.
There are many legends that tell of the start of Linux, one of which is: Linus, while playing around in MINIX, piped data to his hard drive instead of his modem and wiped out the MINIX partitions he had created, thus leading to his frustration at the limits of the OS and his decision to create his own.
Another version has it that he wrote the kernel to gain better functionality of the new Intel 386 machine he was using. Another, still, says that he was barred from further improving MINIX, and so went on to develop his own.
Whatever the real story is, he created a free terminal emulator that was based on MINIX, which was based on Unix and would eventually become the workings for an operating system kernel. On 25 August, 1991, Linus posted his now famous message on the MINIX Newsgroup.
After that, FTP servers around the world became a-buzz with versions of Linux (originally named Freax), which grew at an astounding rate due to the number of contributors involved.
Version 0.01 of Linux is a far cry from what's available these days, but if you want to get your hands dirty, point your browsers to here and download the 71KB kernel in all its glory, along with the release notes from here.
Unfortunately, we can't stay in 1991. Needless to say, though, Linux evolved into a fully-blown OS, with the Manchester Computing Centre creating one of the first distributions that used a combined boot/ root disk, named MCC Interim Linux.
1992 to 1994
The growth of the desktop founders
Not much of a time jump, but between 1992 and 1994 we saw the rise of the most influential founders of the modern Linux desktop: Slackware, Red Hat and Debian, along with the Linux kernel growing to become 0.95 - the first to be capable of running the X Window System.
Slackware had something of a rocky start, although one of the first systems to adopt the 'new' Linux kernel at that time, Slackware started life as SLS, the Softlanding Linux System, as founded by Peter MacDonald in 1992.
SLS was quite far ahead of its time, as it was the first Linux distribution to contain not only the 0.99 Linux kernel, but also the TCP/IP stack and the X Window System. However, SLS was a buggy beast at best, and it wasn't long before it was superseded by Patrick Volkerding's Slackware, which is the longest-running Linux distro.
SLS did more than just spawn Slackware. Due to the frustrations of its buggy interface, another user found the motivation to go it alone and create a new branch of the Linux distribution. In 1993, Ian Murdock went forth and gave birth to a system called The Debian Linux Release, which is allegedly named after his then girlfriend Debra Lynn and himself.
As Slackware evolved, companies sprung to life that supported the software. One that appeared in 1994 was the Software und System-Entwicklung, or as it was more commonly known, S.U.S.E Linux.
Another distro that saw the light of day, on 3 November, 1994, was called Red Hat Commercial Linux, created by Marc Ewing, and named after the coloured hat he wore whilst at University.
On 14 March, 1994, Linux 1.0.0 was launched with 176,250 lines of code. Thus was the start of something wonderful.
1995 to 1999
The arrival of Gnome and KDE
We take quite a leap in this next section, as the next five years saw some of the greatest Linux distributions arise from the 'big three', along with some very notable off-shoots of the Linux family tree, and including the infamous penguin attack of 1996. All this Linux history happening amid the dot com boom - incredible.
Jurix Linux was an interesting distro that was notable for a number of reasons: it was allegedly the first distro to include a scriptable installer, allowing an admin install to copy the installation process across similar machines. It was one of the first to fully support bootp and NFS, and one of the first Linux systems intended to use EXT2.
But what really made Jurix an important milestone in Linux history was the fact that it was the base system used for creating the SUSE Linux that we use today.
The Red Hat-based branch of Linux OSs were a fertile bunch during this five-year stretch. Notable releases such as Caldera, Mandrake, TurboLinux, Yellow Dog and Red Flag all began life from the sudden big bang of the ever-evolving Linux kernel, which was now, from 1995 to 1999, in versions 1.2.0 to 2.2.
In fact, version 2.0, launched in 1996, saw something like 41 releases in the series. It was this fast turn-around of the kernel, and the addition of some very important features that solidified the Linux operating system as the server OS of choice for IT professionals the world over.
Version 2.0, for instance, had features such as SMP support and better memory management, and could run on more types of processor. Version 2.2 heralded an improvement of SMP, support for the PowerPC architecture and a readonly capability for NTFS.
While on holiday in Australia, Linus visited a zoo, where he was bitten by a ferocious penguin. He was then infected with penguinitis, which makes the victim lay awake at night dreaming of penguins and becoming very fond of them - his words, not ours!
Anyway, Linus liked penguins - they are "goofy and fun", as he commented. As for the name Tux, again according to internet fable, this is from (T)orvalds (U)ni(X). So now you know.
Debian-based systems, although not as active as their Red Hat counterparts, began to grow, and favoured a more user-friendly server room approach to their distros. Being more desktop-orientated, Debian-based distros were often displayed on the front of the popular magazines at the time, showing off such notable entries as: Libranet, Storm, Finnix and Corel Linux.
Of course, the most notable happening during these five years was the birth of KDE and Gnome. KDE (Kool Desktop Environment) was founded in 1996 by Matthias Ettrich, a student at the University of Tübingen, who proposed not just a set of working applications, but also an entire desktop environment for them to work in. No longer did users have to fiddle around in CDE or X11-based environments, now we had Qt!
By 1998, KDE version 1.0 was open to the world, and the first distro to use it was Mandrake. By 2000, version 2.0 was out and featured a greatly improved system, with Konqueror, KOffice and KIO networking.
Miguel de Icaza and Federico Mena announced the development of a new desktop environment and accompanying applications, based on GTK+. This new desktop environment was called Gnome.
Interestingly, according to internet folklore, the first Linux OS to feature Gnome was Red Hat. Gnome fast became an acceptable desktop environment, being quick, malleable and very friendly for the average user, and by May 2000 Gnome 1.2 Bongo was released.
Oracle and Sun announced official support for Linux versions, as the OS became increasingly popular, and more system admins started to adopt it in their server rooms.
2000 to 2005
The birth of live distros
The next five years saw an incredible surge of Linux-powered computers hitting the media, with further improvements to the kernel, heaps of new applications and the appearance of the first live distro.
Knoppix, a friendly Debian-based distro developed by Klaus Knopper, was also one of the most popular of its time. It was noteworthy for many reasons, but the main one was the fact that it could boot directly from the CD!
True, this is something we take for granted these days, but Knoppix 1.4, as released on 30 September, 2000, could be inserted into any PC and booted into a fully-working Linux, with access to a massive range of hardware and the ability to communicate and connect automatically to almost any network available at that time.
Knoppix set the bar for other Linux distros to follow, and from its humble beginnings it spawned quite the family tree of Knoppix-based distros, many of which are still with us today.
With all these pre-built distros now becoming the flavour of the month, and starting to look vaguely like Microsoft's offerings, a project was started to help get Linux users back in touch with what makes Linux work.
Linux From Scratch (LFS) was conceived, along with a book by Gerard Beekmans, which gave users instructions on how to build their own Linux system from source.
Linux is freedom, and it must be allowed to grow, but to ensure the protection and the advancement of Linux a group must be formed to help keep Linux independent. So, in 2000 the Linux Foundation was formed to sponsor the work of Linus and the developing community, in making and improving Linux, but also to defend it and keep it within the core values of freedom, collaboration and education - a bit like the Justice League, but without capes.
A pivotal moment in the Linux kernel came with version 2.4, released on 4 January. Version 2.4 contained support for USB, PC Cards, ISA Plug and Play, and went on to add Bluetooth, RAID and EXT3. In fact, 2.4.x was the longest-supported kernel, ending with 18.104.22.168 in 2011, and went to show just how versatile and powerful the Linux kernel had become from the early days of 1.0.
Red Hat, having now enjoyed some time on the stock market, decided that although it made some money via the support of its free Red Hat Linux OS, the time had come to adopt a more business-like and commercial approach.
From this came a two-way split - Red Hat Enterprise Linux 2.1 was born, with kernel 2.4.9, more stability and long-term support for the enterprise user, and the Fedora Core for the community distribution.
With RHEL being open source, Red Hat makes the source code available freely on its FTP servers, which several groups downloaded and compiled to their own distros. CentOS, Oracle Linux, CERN and Scientific Linux are notable examples of such distros - all the goodness of a well-built distro, but without access to the mighty Hat's expert knowledge and software.
December of 2002 saw the release of a notable distro, CRUX. With special emphasis on the 'keep it simple' theme that had become popular during this time, CRUX was extremely lightweight and focused on the developer as opposed to the end user.
In a time when Linux distros were starting to grow exponentially, and vied for the position as the replacement for Windows, CRUX took a different look and thinned itself down to the bone, becoming a welcomed minimalist distro.
What's notable about CRUX, though, is the fact that it was the inspiration and base for Arch Linux.
With kernel 2.4 doing so well, version 2.6 was announced on 18 December. With it came support for PAE, new CPUs, improved 64-bit support, 16TB filesystem sizes, EXT4 and more.
As the Linux distro was now approaching an almost Zen-like harmony with user and PC, it was still deemed as being distant to those users who preferred the flavourings of Microsoft. Therefore, a new philosophy was needed - something that would make Linux more human, and show more humanity, something Ubuntu.
Based on Debian, Ubuntu's aim was to create an easy-to-use Linux desktop that could be updated to include the latest offerings by the end user with very little experience in Linux. With the release of Ubuntu 4.10, the Warty Warthog, on 20 October, 2004 this dream was realised.
2006 to 2012
The rise and fall of Ubuntu
And so, we approach the present day. Some things have started to stabilise, but we've also seen an explosion in the number of distros. Despite the onslaught, the old stalwarts have remained strong.
Of the many differing distros that were launched from 2006 onwards, one has become the fourth most-used operating system in the world, and is regarded as the most popular Linux, according to various sources.
Linux Mint 1.0, Ada, was released in 2006 with a heady mixture of FOSS and proprietary software. This 'works-out-of-the-box' Linux distro briefly followed the Ubuntu base and later the Debian base as well.
Linux Mint has adapted itself to embrace, and offer, the newest technologies while still keeping an ear to the ground and listening to its users, hence the massive support for this great distro.
KDE4 was released, and was met with some criticism due to the lack of stability, with Linus himself stating that KDE 4.0 was a "break everything" and "halfbaked" release. However, users began to enjoy the Plasma desktop, and the cutting-edge look and feel, so that by the time KDE 4.2 was released in 2009, everyone had forgotten about the terrible experience they had previously. What a fickle bunch we are.
23 September saw the release of one of the most popular Linux-based operating systems ever, although 90% of its users have no idea that it's Linux-based at all. That OS is Android.
Version 1.0 was launched with the HTC Dream and could do everything you'd expect from a modern smartphone, but it was buggy. Version 1.1 fixed most of the bugs, but it wasn't until version 1.5 Cupcake that Android really started to get interesting and pave the way for smartphones the world over.
Ubuntu had gone from strength to strength during this time. It was regularly at the top of the Linux charts, it had a huge fanbase and it was easy to use.
Then, one sunny April day, the 14th release of Ubuntu came about, but with a slightly different look: Unity. Apart from KDE4 and Gnome 3, never has such venom been spat at a desktop interface as with Unity.
It's safe to say that nearly everyone hated it, and they still do. Ubuntu fell from favour and is still struggling to keep up, but it has stuck by its guns and still supports Unity. Will it eventually become the final nail in the Ubuntu coffin?
After some years with the 2.6.x kernel, version 3.0 was finally released with the following changes: "NOTHING. Absolutely nothing," as said by Linus. Indeed, due to the kernel numbers getting too high, and the 2.6.* notation getting out of hand, Linus decided that a new number was called for. Version 3.0, there you have it.
After the debacle that was KDE4 some years earlier, you'd think that those who created desktop environments would have learnt what the public liked. This obviously hadn't reached the ears of the Gnome team, who in April of this year launched Gnome 3.0.
Like lemmings, users of Linux ran towards the cliff and threw themselves off in favour of KDE, or earlier versions of Gnome, such was its effect on the Linux community. The damage was done, and Gnome is still paying for it, with the likes of Linux Mint offering users an alternative desktop environment, in the form of MATE and Cinnamon.
Unfortunately we've reached the end of our brief timeline, although we've seen some classic retro Linux distros, and how it all began.
What does the future hold? Who knows, our lack of ability to foretell the future is obvious, as we're still only journalists and not mega-rich layabouts, but keep watching this space and in another 20 years' time, we may have a look at the history of Linux from 2012 to 2032.