When I look back to the year 1991, I remember many things. Manipuri language got included in the 8th schedule. I was in 8th standard in Don Bosco, Imphal, where Oja Dhaneshwar Ningthoujam taught us ‘Basic’ on 8 bit BBC Microcomputers, and in civics class Oja Varkey Parampadyil Varghese talked about Balkan crisis and a revolution that was brewing up in Europe. The world was engrossed with things like the U.S. led coalition air and ground war on Iraqi Forces in Kuwait, Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ and Metallica’s ‘black’ album, the coup attempt against Gorbachev in USSR etc. In India too, it was an eventful year, Indian economy was in severe crisis, and it was also the year when Rajiv Gandhi got assassinated. While all these were happening around, in Finland, a college student called Linus Torvalds was quietly writing some code for an operating system.
On 25th August 1991, Linus Torvalds made a modest announcement about Linux, via an email.
From: [email protected] (Linus Benedict Torvalds)
Date: 25 Aug 91 20:57:08 GMT
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.
And the Linux revolution was born.
The free availability of Linux source code on the web swiftly caused a chain-reaction leading to further development and fine-tuning worth the equivalent of about 73,000 man-years. Linux is built collaboratively, by Linus Torvalds and a loosely knit team of volunteer hackers from all over the world across the internet, resulting in the largest collaborative development in the history of computing. Day-to-day development discussions take place on the Linux kernel mailing list (LKML). Since 2005, more than 8000 contributors from over 800 companies contributed to the Linux kernel. These contributions have resulted in more than 15 million lines of codes, and a major new kernel comes out every 2-3 months which are freely available, while competing operating systems take years for new releases (and they are also not free in source as well as in charge).
Linux is dominating on embedded devices, mobile devices, the enterprise, web infrastructure, data centres, super computing and more. It’s tough to imagine Information Technology without Linux — or Linus.
Having said so about Linus Torvalds and Linux, we cannot forget Richard Stallman who almost single-handedly ignited what has become a world-wide movement to create software that is Free (Free as in ‘freedom’, not as in free beer). He started the GNU Project and the non-profit corporation ‘Free Software Foundation’ (FSF) in the mid 1980s. When Linus Torvalds shared Linux with the world in 1991, he shared it with GNU Project’s ‘General Public License’ (GPL). Also, at that time, the GNU Project had already created many components required for a free operating system. Those components were used to make an operating system with Linux as the kernel – the most important component.
In 2006, I got a chance to meet Richard Stallman in Bangalore. Contrary to an image I had formed of him, he was not dressed like a sophisticated gentleman in tuxedo, but he turned out to be a simple man with long hair and a bushy unkempt beard donning a t-shirt and a slipper. During our short chit-chat he elaborated the dangers of software patents. He has toiled for years for the free software movement that many once considered a fool’s errand, but now has become a crucial issue in the world.
Linus Torvalds is not a billioner like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, though the software written by him (i.e. Linux kernel which Android uses) is being run on more devices than the combined products of both Bill Gates (Windows) and Steve Jobs (iOS/OS X). Even though Torvalds made his software free, he is still happy with coding/ fixing/ managing the Linux kernel, trying to improve it everyday.
Andrew Morton, one of the key Linux kernel developers said, “When you contribute to Linux, you do so in the knowledge that your work is of small but immediate benefit to tens or even hundreds of millions of human beings. This is a most enjoyable privilege and responsibility.”
We use Linux everyday whether we know it or not. According to the reports, about 700,000 TVs get sold everyday, most of which are running Linux. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon are all powered by Linux. Linux runs on all the Top 100 Super Computers in the world. Over 850,000 Android phones running Linux kernel get activated everyday, compared to 30,000 Windows phones. That means about 3,000 Android devices have come online since you started reading this write-up.
The World Wide Web is less than 10000 days old (Thank you Sir Tim Berners-Lee), Linux is 25 years young, these two pair of inventions have radically changed the human civilisation and the course of human history more swiftly than any other pair of invention known to mankind.
(The writer is founder of the erstwhile Linux-Manipur, he can be reached at [email protected] or facebook.com/ringo.pebam)