Saturday, June 9, 2007

Why Linux?


Unix was the answer to the Operating Systems war, but there was a catch, it was owned by Ma Bell. Those of you old enough may remember the great Telephone Monopoly. Universities got Unix free, there were no commercial binary versions allowed. If you weren't a university and you wanted Unix, the only way to get it was to by a full source license (I believe it was about $50,000 to $60,000 in 70's dollars). If you'd care to see the whole Unix timeline try the Bell Labs site here.

Working programmers like myself really wanted to have Unix because if today you experienced the tools we had to work with, you'd laugh. What we did, as smart programmers, was to write our own Unix-like toolkit of utility programs that worked the same way under the different vendor OS's.

Finally, in the late 70's and 80's, with the breakup of Ma Bell, variants of Unix were starting to be commercially licensed... the ??ix's. To see a great chart of the proliferation of Unix, take a look here.

Into this potpourri walk Richard Stallman with his GNU Project (definition: GNU's Not Unix --good god, a recursive acronym) and Linus Torvald with a simple terminal emulation project and the newly opened (for commercial traffic) Internet. A hypergolic mix. I first used the Internet (then called ARPANET) in 1977 at General Electric--we fed punched paper tapes into a churning, jerking Teletype 33 as it sent and typed text at 300 baud. The Internet let all the Software Engineers (the term "Information Architect" wasn't invented until the 90's) combine their personal toolkit's under Linus' brilliant direction and Stallman's license to create Linux the Operating System, the Unix-workalike system we wanted for over a decade.

The first time I used Linux (version 0.09 kernal 1993) I became a believer. It was so true to Unix although it was programmed from scratch by 10,000 engineers. Best of all, it was free... not just the price, but an example of what can be accomplished with free collaboration and sharing while working toward a common goal. I've been a Linux Man ever since.

Why mention all this?

Because today, the Operating System wars are not really over. With the rise of the Desktop and the advent of "personal computing" plus a whole array of web-related technologies repeating and repeating the same weary commercial scenerio I'd like to say a few words , the view from this desk so to speak.

The one thing that was detested from my hippie-oriented programming days was the idea of hardware vendors withholding vital information needed to help their customers achieve their goals in order to extort some sort of financial advantage. It formerly was just a bad taste in the mouth, now with the degradation of the culture it has become a standard Public Policy.

Look at this:
  • A huge commercial US company wanting to own all software and programming as part of its charter.
  • The "standards" that permit stability and interchange are given only lip service by the companies that employ the technologists to implement their schemes.
  • The technologists receive diddly-squat as payment, but eagerly accept "toys" to play with, no matter how potentially destructive.
  • The public does not know or believe there are any alternatives to the dominant commercial technology, and they are sold this viewpoint at every opportunity.
  • Lawyers, Governments and Commercial companies, not understanding actual Social (capital 'S') implications and details of technological disruption, just want to cash-in for a short-term profit.
Gee, welcome to, was that: 1969? 1975? 1981? 1985? 1998? etc.

Perhaps we are, and have always been, in a great Information war and Crusade for the domination of men's minds by a few over the many. My experience is there can be no War (capital 'W') with full disclosure. Our supposed grand material technologies move us at an ever-increasing rate to a time when all Information is instantly available and all of it means absolutely nothing, but we are required to pay for it all.

There's a warning here.

Oh, I am a Linux Man!

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