Happy Birthday! Linux turns 20 this month

Graham Armstrong celebrates Linux's 20th birthday

Image: CC-AT-NC-SA Flickr: The Lazy Canadian

Party hats on guys! Linux, the operating system kernel created by Linus Torvalds, is turning 20 this month. This momentous occasion has been marked by the Linux Foundation setting up a website with information about events taking place to celebrate and party hard. Perhaps more peculiarly, Jim Zemlin, Executive Director of the Linux Foundation, has marked the occasion by claiming that the long-standing battle between Microsoft Windows and Linux has been won. Speaking to Network World, he said this:

"I think we just don't care that much [about Microsoft] anymore," Zemlin said. "They used to be our big rival, but now it's kind of like kicking a puppy."

Linux has been growing slowly over the years, whilst many people outside of techydom may still not be familiar with the name, they will no-doubt have ran into many of the various products which use Linux software. Subtle devices such as coffee machines to techno-wizz devices such as Android smartphones are all examples of Linux in the modern world. Not to mention that Linux is gaining traction in both the tablet PC market and netbook market, perhaps thanks to its versatile scalability and to optimisations that allow the OS to run on less memory than my car keys.

Branching out to smaller devices has helped Linux to develop and thrive, however Linux continues to struggle on the desktop. According to several usage polls taken this year, over 80% of all desktop PCs are still running Microsoft Windows operating systems. Only a small 1.8% chunk of the desktop market uses Linux and a 9% chunk uses Apple’s operating systems. So if Linux can be successful out and about, why can’t it be successful on the desktop?  

Some might criticise Linux for being too difficult to use. My first contact with Linux involved trying to install Gentoo on my PC about ten years ago having only just realised what a hard drive partition was which inevitably led to me apt-get-ing gravity by hoying it out my /dev/window.

The desktop experience has been fought for by projects such as KDE and Gnome, the massively popular Ubuntu owes its success in part to their effort to make the desktop easier. KDE 4 was a rather embarrassing Vista knock-off whilst earlier this month Gnome 3 released creating a faint breeze of excitement from the community, however it does feel that the team at Gnome have cracked it and are now progressing in the right direction.

The difficulty of using Linux jeopardises the most important aspect, which separates Linux from its Apple and Microsoft based counterparts—the philosophy of open software. A year after its creation, The Free Software foundation took Linux under its wing. Torvalds registered Linux under the GPL to ensure the freedom of the software. Unfortunately non-technical folk are typically looking for software that works rather than software that cleanses the soul.

Wendy M. Grossman touched upon the topic in her recent article and of a similar topic to the BBC documentary series The Virtual Revolution (The Cost of Free). Linux has been a massive help to the free software community, however eyebrows were raised at Google’s announcement that the Android Honeycomb source code won’t be released in the near future. Linux has been a success for businesses such as Red Hat and Google entirely because of its open source approach.

If Linux, as open software, can continue to spread then that will be good for the fundamental ideas of software freedom, but spreading that software will be dependent on users ability and willingness to use the software. Happy Birthday Linux!


Graham Armstrong is a computing student with a strong interest in free software, and the use of social media technology to aid transparency and democracy. He tweets as @LupusSLE


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By Graham Armstrong on Apr 27, 2011

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