30 Years of Linux
On August 25th 1991, a guy whom you may have heard of, Linus Torvalds, sent possibly one of the most quoted emails in history. It started like this:
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.
And the history of operating systems changed forever.
Yesterday we celebrated the 30th anniversary of Linux and I saw some people were posting their own personal retrospectives on how they had come to know the OS we all know and cherish… both on social media as well as on their blogs… So, I want to jump in, because it is a fun topic to delve into! Unfortunately I’m one day late, because life…
The History of Linux itself has been covered a million times… but each of our own histories with it? That’s irrepetible and unique. So, let’s start! Welcome everyone to Ariadna’s Journey Into Linux!
A Weird Computer in Heidelberg
OK, I think it was around the year 1999 or 2000. I’m not sure. I do recall my family and I were still living in Chile and my younger brother was 2 or 3 years old. That I remember well because the trip to Germany I’m going to talk about ended up us finding out a chronic health issue he’s got… and he was of that age when he had his first crisis.1 I was 12-ish years old back then.
So, my dad is a professor in Philosophy and has lots of ties with Germany. In fact, I was raised in Germany for a short period of time in my early childhood while he was finishing a postdoc position he was awarded there. Since then, he’s always traveled there and sometimes, when circumstances allowed, we went with him.
So, around 1999-2000, we had this almost one month and a half stay in Heidelberg. Hey, we were traveling from Chile, so we wanted our stay to be long enough to enjoy the place before going back the other side of the Atlantic. I remember it was mid Winter.
My dad’s computer was a Windows 98 laptop… I think some kind of Compaq? The thing is that in the middle of our stay there, his PCMCIA modem card died. So he needed an Internet connection to keep up with emails and other work-related stuff.
He got permission to use the computers at the University’s PC lab and, well, I went with him to visit the place, because I had read that the lab had a nice little computing museum. I wanted to check it out, of course… and probably I was just bored out of hell from being shut inside due to the cold German winter anyways.
I remember the PC lab to be a very dark place, with unpainted concrete walls, old signs placed on them… I vaguely remember that the museum exhibition was poorly lit and that I had to come quite close to the glass casings where each device was held in in order to actually read the descriptions and their stories. My dad crossed a door, where all the computers were, and I followed him.
When we looked at the screen, neither he or myself knew what was going on.
When I was a little child, I had used Classic Macs, MS-DOS, and all Windowses from 3.1 up to the then current 98. But this was… weird. The taskbar was huge, with lots of things going on, with a K encircled by a gear that acted like Windows’s start menu, but wasn’t? We had to ask where the web browser was and we were directed to a program that looked like a file browser… In 30 minutes my dad had figured out everything he needed to use that box, but we were both totally baffled. What was that thing?
Mandrake Featured on Popular Mechanics
Some years later, when I started having some money of my own, I started buying the Latin American edition of Popular Mechanics. I only bought it for the IT stuff; I couldn’t care less about the cars stuff.
So one day, they published a series on how to install and use Mandrake Linux. I quickly became interested in the series, although I had no permission to install a different OS on any of our family’s computers. I was lent an old laptop of my dad’s to do homework (without an Internet connection), but that was it.
I think that taught me, more or less, what Linux was. I also recognized the KDE desktop from that past Heidelberg computer on the screenshots shown on the magazine. It looked like fun, and I recall that they also sort of explained the basics of FOSS philosophy at some point.
An OS that you’re allowed to tinker with? That sounded exciting? I was on my QBASIC/VB6 days back then, so I knew what coding was… but at the OS and userland levels? Wow, that was interesting…
But I hadn’t had the chance to try Linux on my own yet… That still had to wait…
MS Vista, the FSF, and My First Live CD
Year 2006. Many changed in my family’s life. We were just about to move from Chile to Spain. Those days I remember like living through hell and… my own issues were kicking me very hard… Dysphoria feeds off stress, you know? My relationship with my family was cracking; it didn’t break entirely until many years later, but the first signs were already there.
So even though I’m quite an extrovert, I participated in high school debate leagues and competed as a high school athlete (mid-distance!), at home I escaped from the bad stuff that was going on by taking refuge on my computer.
I don’t know how and I don’t even remember the website. All I remember was that it had a light brown background and that usual early 2000s layout based on frames. I stumbled upon a tutorial on Linux command line, which I followed to its end without even having a Linux distro to play with. Something clicked with me? Maybe the nostalgia from the old MS-DOS days? I don’t know; I wish I could remember more of this… but that was another step into the Linux path.
Vista was already out or about to be released. You may not remember this, but I do… Windows XP was a revolution like Win95 was in its time. People loved XP. It had brought MS the reputation they had had in the early 90s back. XP, although it had a rocky start, was rock solid, worked, had solved lots of issues that Win9x suffered from (well, the NT kernel helped there), and people were happy.
Vista came with an ominous threat, though… that had an ethical side to it. Does anyone remember Trusted Computing? MS wanted to vet drivers in a way more strict way they were doing until then. Windows has always had this toxic relation with drivers, where the fact that allowing for Plug & Play using third party drivers definitely had helped Windows to become the dominant desktop OS… with the cost of instability. XP helped, but MS thought it wasn’t good enough… So for Longhorn/Vista they wanted to transition to a model where drivers had to be certified… and they wanted this to be a way to implement DRM at a hardware level as well.
That didn’t fly well… and I’m not really sure they enforced it on Vista, apart from the annoying UAC dialog. The system requirements for Vista were way too high as well… so… I really felt my laptop wasn’t going to make the leap. And I hated the prospect of my OS telling me what could I use and what not… Yup, I was already on the right track back then!
OK, we had a transatlantic move to make, so at first I wasn’t in any condition to try out any new OS back then. I also was dealing with my own stuff and my admission to uni…
We arrived to Pamplona in January 2007. There’s a long story to tell there, but as soon as we got some stability and I was granted an Internet connection of my own (finally!) I started looking for Linux… Or actually, I started looking for further information about the Vista issue.
I stumbled upon the FSF, of course.
I read all of RMS’s essays.
I became a GNU fangirl as much as you could imagine… which is funny, because nowadays I feel very far away from most of what the FSF says and does… I only agree with them in some core issues, but that’s all… But hey, people change!
Back then the FSF was full into recommending and pushing gNewSense, a libre Linux distro based on Ubuntu. So of course, following their advice, I burned the Live CD and… Wow! It worked!
Yup, my first distro was gNewSense, folks!
Well, “worked.” Of course WiFi didn’t work, because the drivers were proprietary and gNewSense didn’t ship with them… I was becoming more educated in the Linux way of doing things, so I quickly learned I was going to end up on Ubuntu… but in the meantime, I spent hours learning skills on the gNewSense Live CD. I remember those hours being my sanctuary to shut myself off from the worsening family conditions. The move to Europe that was somehow going to save our family, of course didn’t do so… Unfortunately, time has only shown I was right, even though economically things improved and even though for me this allowed me to find my ways in life. But it still sucks. Sorry, I’m still sour about this… because it still has hurtful consequences.
The Early Days: Ubuntu and Debian
I installed Ubuntu. It was the best option for me back then. I think it was 7.04? I might have played around the 6.10 Live CD, but I vaguely remember I deliberately waited for a new release to come before actually installed the system on my hard drive. That’s why I believe it had to be 7.04.
Ubuntu taught me what it was like using Linux as your daily driver. I did dual boot like for two months? I do remember wiping Windows from my PC very early in my Ubuntu days and I’ve never gone back to using Windows in a machine I own since then.
Those were probably the golden years of Ubuntu as a desktop OS. Don’t get me wrong, Canonical has grown a lot since then, but they’ve clearly made a commitment towards cloud-based systems and other stuff… Ubuntu Desktop being sort of what Fedora is to Red Hat nowadays: sorts of a test bed for the products the respective companies do sell in their for-profit operations. I’m cool with that, but there was a focus shift around the 2010s, in my opinion.
But what made me fall in love with Linux was the community. I started getting into IRC channels, forums… and I started meeting people online who were amazing mentors. I also was getting back into coding, after some time I was sort of disconnected from it… not really sure why? Back then Python was the fashionable thing, so I got back to coding with it… but soon I started learning C, which hooked me up ever since!
I think it was 2010-ish when I switched to Debian but I honestly don’t remember why. Maybe I just wanted to check out the “mothership?” Debian, though, was the distro that saw me contribute in some little fashion to packaging and translating some stuff, but that’s it… I was still a “lone” coder, I wasn’t publishing anything into the wilderness… only showing it to my IRC acquiantances and that was it.
These were fun times. I was moving to Barcelona in 2011 to start my MA and later my PhD… and there was Linux helping me through all of that! For me, it was a critical tool that was making my life very easy, brought me some fun… It was perfect!
Getting into Arch Linux
Year 2013. I was already living in Barcelona, I was in the middle of my PhD… and was a Debian testing user. For some reason I never got into Debian Sid?
Someday I will talk in further detail why I’ve stayed with Arch for so long, even though there are amazing new distros that strive for even more minimalism, don’t use systemd, and are straying away from the GNU userland… There are reasons… some of which have to do with why I switched into it from Debian.
Well, actually, I’ve never abandoned Debian. Whenever I’ve needed to spin up a server, Debian is always my OS of choice. I’m talking desktop here, of course.
I was getting myself deeper and deeper into programming into C. And Debian… OK, Debian can work as a development platform, but depending on what you’re doing, it might limit you… unless you start adding backports and doing stuff that might make your installation less stable than it should… Back then I wasn’t the CLI-only, minimalism-loving C coder, but I was experimenting with GTK+, different libraries… and I still was doing some stuff using Python as well… So I hit a point in which… OK, maybe I didn’t really need it, but I wanted to be on a cutting edge distro where I got development tools as soon as they were released.
Arch was the perfect fit for me. I wasn’t afraid of the lack of installer (now it’s got one!) and it felt… and still feels like home! I know it can become problematic, but for me Arch has been a great learning tool, especially on the sysadmin side of things. The Arch Wiki being like a “Linux Bible” everyone refers to even if they don’t use Arch is sort of a meme right now… But it is true. It’s one of the best, if not the best, place to learn about the operation of a Linux distro, look for documentation, etc.
And I’ve been using it uninterruptedly since 2013. This doesn’t mean this installation is from 2013… But to be fair, I’ve only reinstalled Arch because of failing hard drives issues… until I switched to the SSD I’m currently using… So, it never was because the distro broke or something like that! Hey, I know the reputation Arch has… but I haven’t ever gotten into any software issues with it… nope, never… OK, maybe some package has gone crazy once or twice, but a downgrade does the trick until it’s patched.
Came In for the Tech, stayed for the Culture
I’ve only talked about distros, but there’s a way lot more to cover in the journey of a Linux user like me… I mean, I went from GNOME 2.x to KDE 3.x, stayed for KDE Plasma 4… got back to GNOME 3.x… And suddenly got into sway… and I’m constantly trying out stuff… For example, my last experiment was switching from bare ALSA (because I can’t stand PulseAudio) into a PipeWire-based setup, which works like a charm!
We could spend all day long talking about this and that component… this and that piece of technology, the kernel, the userland, the licensing… everything… But in my heart, I know I’ve stayed because of the people and the experiences. I wouldn’t be a competent C coder, I wouldn’t even have a PhD (thanks to TeXLive being waaaaaay easier to use on Linux than anywhere else,) I wouldn’t have learned so much over the years, I wouldn’t have gotten in contact with so many incredible people… some of them even great masters in their own respective trades… I wouldn’t have been part of a Linux podcast with some members of the Spanish community… I wouldn’t even have discovered my taste for blogging on these topics, if that Finnish guy wouldn’t have posted that email 30 years ago! And of course there were lots of other incredible figures who made this possible, some indirectly, some directly, but that email started a revolution that has benefited millions, be them users, be them developers, you name it!
30 years is a mark of maturity. Yup, some people complain about some things in the current landscape, some of which might be true, but please… stop for a moment… Are we really aware of the huge size of what 30 years of a FOSS operating system, which became dominant in every single market (except ironically the desktop) against all the odds? Against the totally misguided comments by Prof. Tanenbaum,2 the nasty campaign by Ballmer’s Microsoft in the 2000s, against the caricature of Linux being that quirky thing that “doesn’t work,” etc.?
People will come, people will go. Torvalds isn’t eternal. He will leave at some point. Others will take the lead… to some degree, they already have, but that’s a story for another time. And never forget that Linux is a collective endeavor where lots of amazing programmers are doing an amazing job. They also deserve a shout-out today.
Technology will change. Maybe a kid is writing the next “Revolution OS” in their room right now and in the next couple of months will send a post somewhere that might change things like Torvalds’s did 30 years ago… Who knows! But the culture will not fade away. Linux helped give a fresh breath to the Hacker culture of the olden days. Linux and Torvalds and his team have already entered History. This is something to celebrate… So…
To Linux. Happy Birthday! (With coffee, because I don’t drink alcohol…)
He’s doing great now; he’s in his mid 20s now. Of course he needs to take care of himself, but thank God the bad days are long over. He’s a healthy, very active guy who lives his life in a 90% normal way. ↩︎
Speaking from my experience in Academia here: I’ve always thought Prof. Tanenbaum reaction was due to a typical case of hurt academic ego. A student had surpassed a world-famous CompSci professor who was an expert in OS design and who wanted Minix to be a commercial success but never found a way to make it so… ↩︎