Where did Linux come from? Strange as it may seem, its roots extend back to ’60s Counterculture. Not a lot of computers in the Haight-Ashbury of course. In those times the only place a young person was likely to access hardware was at university, and it was on campuses that experimentation with drugs and social non-conformity met the sort of person who doesn’t have a lot of friends but is really good at mathematics. Strange things developed out of this cross-fertilisation. Like, to a large extent, the Internet. It was the beginning of Hacker culture.
In this period one of the leading computer operating systems, on campuses and increasingly in industry, was Unix. It was interestingly designed and well-suited to the networked style of computing that was beginning to emerge, seeming almost a little anarchistic in itself. But it was still an expensive, licensed corporate product. A few brave (and possibly slightly high) young souls decided that, hey, they were programmers. They could make something just as good themselves.
The name of this project was GNU. (Standing for GNU is Not Unix. What else?) Like Unix, GNU was designed not as a single giant program but as a whole bunch of little ones, each with its task to perform. A lot of progress was made, but the project long lacked its most vital component: The one central program that organises all the others, known as the kernel. Until, that is, 21-year-old Finnish student Linus Torvalds created one for his own amusement. When the two projects were put together, a complete operating system was born. Purists to this day refer to it as “GNU/Linux”, but plain Linux does for the rest of us.
Don’t make the mistake though of thinking of Linux as an inferior imitation of Unix made by hippies. It’s true it was modelled closely on Unix. In one sense it is Unix; its commands and structures are much the same and a person who knows one can use the other. The difference is that Linux is devoid of any patented or proprietary technology, and so can be copied, changed and distributed freely. This openness has allowed countless people to improve the code – everyone from oddball geniuses just showing off to giant corporations motivated by the bottom line. The only rule is that if you make modifications you must give your work back to the community. This Open Source philosophy has allowed Linux to mushroom in capabilities and refinement, leaving the Unix it once emulated far behind.
This freedom has also led to the huge number of “distros”, as they are called. Linux comes in several major versions, and almost countless minor. Though let’s be careful to be clear about this – they are not different operating systems in the sense that Windows and Mac OS are different. They’re all broadly compatible, the differences reflecting variations more in philosophy than technology.
Nonetheless the sheer breadth of choice may be off-putting at first. Don’t let it worry you, the day is not long off when you’ll believe passionately that one of them is far better than all the others. But that doesn’t matter now (and to be honest, it won’t matter a hell of a lot then either) – what we care about is where to start.