Brief History of Linux (Part 3)

Feature written by James Baughn on Friday, March 17, 2000

from the another-boring-retrospective dept.

It's time again for the next installment in our "brief" history of Linux. In Part 3, we explore the rise and rise of Microsoft, and the mysterious events surrounding Linus Torvalds' creation of Linux.

There are lies, damned lies, and Microsoft brochures

When we last left off, Bill Gates had forged an unholy alliance with Big Blue to bundle DOS with new PCs. At this point Gates ticked off Step 1 in his master World Domination timetable and proceeded to the next step.

Even from the very first day, the Microsoft Marketing Department was at full throttle. Vaporware has always been their weapon of choice. Back when MS-DOS 1.25 was released to OEMs, Microsoft handed out brochures touting some of the features to be included in future versions, including: Xenix-compatible pipes, process forks, multitasking, graphics and cursor positioning, and multi-user support.

The brochure also stated, "MS-DOS has no practical limit on disk size. MS-DOS uses 4-byte Xenix compatible pointers for file and disk capacity up to 4 gigabytes." We would like to emphasize in true Dave Barry fashion that we are not making this up.

Big vaporous plans were also in store for Microsoft's "Apple Killer" graphical interface. In 1983 Microsoft innovated a new marketing ploy -- the rigged "smoke-and-mirrors" demo -- to showcase the "overlapping windows" and "multitasking" features of Interface Manager, the predecessor to Windows. These features never made it into Windows 1.0 -- which, incidentally, was released 1.5 years behind schedule.

The rise and rise of the Microsoft Empire

The DOS and Windows releases kept coming, and much to everyone's surprise, Microsoft became more and more successful. This brought much frustration to computer experts who kept predicting the demise of Microsoft and the rise of Macintosh, Unix, and later, OS/2. "Why do people keep using crapware like DOS?" they frequently asked.

Nobody ever got fired for choosing Microsoft (at least not until recently), which was the prime reason that DOS and Windows prevailed. Oh, and DOS had better games as well, which we all know is the most important feature an operating system can have.

In 1986 Microsoft's continued success prompted the company to undergo a wildly successful IPO. Afterwards, Microsoft and Chairman Bill had accumulated enough money to acquire small countries without missing a step, but all that money couldn't buy quality software. Gates could, however, buy enough marketing and hype to keep MS-DOS (Maybe Some Day an Operating System) and Windows (Will Install Needless Data On While System) as the dominant platforms, so quality didn't matter. This fact was demonstrated in Microsoft's short-lived slogan from 1988, "At Microsoft, quality is job 1.1".

Boy meets operating system

While everyone was looking towards Redmond, certain events transpired in Finland that would later have grave repercussions for Microsoft. That's right, Internet Relay Chat was invented in Finland. IRC would form a major communications channel by which collaborative development on free software would take place.

Oh, and Linux was started in Finland, too.

The young Linus Torvalds might have been just another CompSci student if it wasn't for his experiences in the University of Helsinki's Fall 1990 Unix & C course. During one class, the professor experienced difficulty getting Minix to work properly on a Sun box. "Who the heck designed this thing?" the angry prof asked rhetorically, and somebody responded, "Andrew Tanenbaum".

The name of the Unix & C professor has already escaped from Linus, but the words he spoke next remain forever etched in his grey matter: "Tanenbaum... ah, yes, that Amsterdam weenie who thinks microkernels are the greatest thing since sliced bread. Well, they're not. I would just love to see somebody create their own superior Unix-like 32-bit operating system using a monolithic kernel just to show Tanenbaum up!"

His professor's outburst inspired Linus to order a new IBM PC so he could hack Minix (as an excuse not to do schoolwork, of course). The new machine was quite expensive, so Linus had to rent it. He planned on paying the monthly installments from his meager salary as a nude model for the university's Art Department.

You can probably guess what happened next. Inspired by his professor's words, Linus Torvalds hacks together his own superior Unix-like 32-but operating system using a monolithic kernel just to show Mr. Christmas Tree up.

An unexpected plot twist

Unfortunately, that didn't happen. Linus Torvalds was tragically hit by a bus on the morning of January 5, 1991 while he was crossing the street to pick up his new PC at the post office.

At this point, you, the reader (assuming you've made it this far without dozing off), are probably wondering, "What the heck? Linus can't be dead; I talked to him last month at a Linux expo and he gave me his autograph, which I sold last week on eBay for $1,000! If Linus died in 1991, then where did Linux come from?"

We could make up some answer involving a conspiracy conconcted by the Helsinkian Underground in which "Linus Torvalds" is nothing but a fictional character portrayed by a cast of Finnish actors. We could then argue that Linux is a fiendish instrument distributed by the Finns to spy on the rest of the world.

However, that's not the truth. Occam's Razor tells us that the simplest explanation is usually the best. Indeed, the real explanation for the creation of Linux is much simpler than a Finnish meta-conspiracy ever could be: it involves such common everyday occurences as alien invasions and temporal paradoxes.

A Linux-free universe

Without Linus around to create Linux, the Unix world fragmented and collapsed in the late 1990s. Apple went bankrupt in 1998; a year later several prominent Macintosh advocates surrendered to Microsoft by signing the historic Treaty of Redmond. All other operating systems faltered, and by the year 2000 Microsoft had 100% market share on all system software.

It's not hard to imagine what happened next. The Microsoft Network (formerly called the Internet) soon permeated throughout society. The US Congress replaced several executive departments with the Department of Software, headed by Chief Software Architect Bill Gates. The "Microsoftization" of the US, and then the world, continued unabated until 2054, when the United States of Microsoft launched a space probe towards Gatesia Prime (previously known as Alpha Centauri) using ActiveIonDriveX propulsion.

Space aliens intercepted the probe en route to Gatesia Prime and were not pleased with what they saw. The probe's computers ran Windows 2050 (Interstellar Edition), which the aliens considered to be a dangerous virus. "What if this thing spreads to our computer systems?" the aliens wondered. "Our entire galactic civilization will collapse in a colossal Bluescreen!"

So, naturally, they travelled to Earth and blew up the entire planet without warning using their fancy ray guns.

That would be the end of the story, except the captain of the alien's invasion ship started feeling a little guilty about the destruction of several billion pseudo-intelligent life-forms. Nevertheless, he couldn't think of anything he could do to save the Earthlings. It's not like he could go back in time and alter events so that Microsoft would not obtain a software monopoly, thus preventing the creation of the abomination known as Windows 2050.

And then he remembered that a new time machine had recently been installed on his ship. Of course! The ship's captain travelled back to 1991 and arranged for the bus to have a flat tire, thus preventing Linus from being run over. He also left a copy of the Faux Press book, "How to Write Your Own Unix-Like 32-Bit Operating System in Only 365 Days".

Linux is born

We all know what happened next. Linus' superhuman programming talent produced, within a year, a full operating system that rivaled Minix. The first official announcement on comp.os.minix came October 5th, in which Linus wrote these famous words:

Do you pine for the nice days of minix-1.1, when men were men and wrote their own device drivers? Do you want to cut your teeth on an operating system that will achieve world domination within 15 years? Want to get rich quick by the end of the century by taking money from hordes of venture capitalists and clueless Wall Street suits? Need to get even with Bill Gates but don't know what to do except throw cream pies at him? Then this post might just be for you :-)

Linux (which was known as "Lindows", "Freax", and "Billsux" for short periods in 1991) hit the bigtime on January 5, 1992 (exactly one year after Linus wasn't hit by a bus) when version 0.12 was released under the GNU GPL. Linus called his creation a "better Minix than Minix"; the famous Linus vs. Tanenbaum flamewar erupted soon thereafter on January 29th and injured several Usenet bystanders.

It's one thing to create your own operating system from scratch, but it's another thing to convince guinea pigs... er, other people... to use it. Thankfully, the fledgling Linux community had help from the GNU Project -- a certain organization that I completely forgot to mention until now. As we shall see in the next installment (assuming you weren't so horribly bored with this installment that you'll actually read the next one), Linux and the GNU Project team up and begin the process of attacking the Microsoft Empire.

To be continued...

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