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.
Linux – it’s like a shark or an iceberg. Most of it’s below the surface but it’s moving fast and you really ought to know about it.
The majority of people, if they’re aware of it at all, probably think of Linux as the non-commercial alternative to Windows or Mac favoured by people who use computers less to get things done than because they actually enjoy it. Which is a shame in a way, as it gives a wholly wrong impression of its significance. Linux is so much more than an operating system for nerds. Indeed you probably use it yourself, every day. Each time you visit a website the chances are good that you’re talking to a computer running Linux. Smart devices in your home like satellite boxes and DVRs, even TVs now, use Linux. If you have an Android phone, that’s based on Linux. Governments are adopting it, and it is far and away the favourite operating system for the world’s most powerful supercomputers.
So it should be surprising that on the workplace desktop – still the biggest, most visible, and most lucrative computer market sector – it runs a very distant third. How come?
Counterintuitively, because it’s free. After all the PC is not ruled by Windows and Mac OS because they’re cheap. Rather it’s because people can make money out of them. Huge ecosystems of supporting industries have grown around these computing platforms – software, hardware, services, training, maintenance, publishing – in no small part because there was a key partner there offering support and leadership.
How do you make money out of a system no one owns? With whom do you form a partnership? How can you be sure, when no one’s in charge, that it’s going to develop in a direction that will suit your business? It’s tricky.
Unless of course you take a leadership role yourself. It seems the best way to make money from Open Source Software like Linux is often to step up and be that key player. This is what Google did with Android, making it the world’s most popular phone OS. Or Red Hat, whose version of Linux is one of the most successful systems in the server sector. Each brought their own business model; Google of course is ultimately selling advertising, Red Hat its expertise and support.
If anyone is going to turn Linux into a household – and an office – name it is surely Canonical. This is the power behind Ubuntu, the most popular and user-friendly desktop version of Linux so far. And their vision doesn’t stop at the desktop – nothing worthy of the name could these days. In recent weeks they’ve launched Ubuntu editions for tablets, phones and TVs. It seems they plan to have devices running their software in every major market sector.
Ubuntu TV – It’s a lot like Windows Media Center except for the giving money to Microsoft part.
It’s an extraordinary ambition, and if they can pull it off then Canonical/Ubuntu will be up there with the big girls, sitting proudly alongside Google, Apple, and Microsoft. But can such a fabulous commercial edifice really be built on open foundations? So much of Linux is being developed by people who work for competing organisations – or who aren’t being paid to do it by anybody.
Indeed community disenchantment may already be starting to show. Ubuntu is no longer flavour of the month. Once hugely popular with the sort of Linux user who doesn’t actually want to reinvent the wheel but just needs something that can be installed and maintained with the minimum of fuss, Ubuntu – and its slightly geekier sisters Kubuntu and Xubuntu – drove all before it. No longer; the flavour now is Mint.
This is a different Linux variant (or ‘distro’, to use the jargon). Indeed it’s very much a variant of Ubuntu, just with Canonical’s more commercial ideas stripped out. (This ‘forking’ is perfectly legal in the OSS world – in fact it’s the whole idea. Ubuntu itself is based on the well-respected Debian distro.) Mint’s popularity though was given a huge boost when Canonical introduced their ironically-named Unity interface.
Some of the resentment of this was silly. Unlike Windows or Mac where the graphical user interface is part and parcel of the system, much of the beauty of Linux is that you can choose – even create – your own. For some however it’s a cause. There have long been two main Linux desktop camps: Gnome and KDE. Ubuntu had been on the Gnome side, so its defection – to a third camp of its own invention yet – was seen by many as betrayal.
More seriously though, Unity is very clearly a touch-orientated interface. As the name suggests, it’s meant to be similar on all types of device. Rather like Windows 8 this makes it less efficient – or put it another way, more annoying – for users stuck with an old-fashioned mouse. And as Linux tablets barely even exist yet, that means pretty much all of them. For the first time, Canonical were allowing their commercial vision to degrade the user experience.
But that was as nothing compared to the next change. A feature of Unity is that you can find a file or application by typing its name in a search box. If what you type isn’t on the computer, the newest version of Ubuntu continues the search on the Web – specifically, to Amazon.com.
“Crochet Patterns not found. Do you want to purchase Crotchless Pants?”
This unasked-for advertising feels a bit like an invasion of privacy. The building of it right into the operating system feels a lot like a kick in the teeth to the non-commercial ethos that engendered Open Source.
Making money in itself is not the problem. Google, Red Hat, even that old devil IBM make a lot of money out of Linux. Where I think Canonical sail close to the wind is in identifying themselves with Linux more closely than any company before. Independent computing creatives will resent it deeply if they come to be perceived as dupes – or worse, minions – of a commercial giant.
There are two questions here really. The first it whether Canonical/Ubuntu can maintain the goodwill of the wider Open Source Software community. The second is whether they can realise their vision without it. Perhaps they can, but I think it would be a minor tragedy if they did.
One thing over which there’s no question though: Open Source Software can continue without Ubuntu.
Lohan’s bar in the seaside resort of Salthill, where my friend Maja is playing jazz on the piano. I’ve eaten a pretty good seafood chowder, and I’m sitting on a stool studying Linux, occasionally looking out at the full moon over the night sea. Life can be all right sometimes, can’t it?
I say studying, more reading up on the very basics. I’ve long regarded Linux as a step too far into the dark woods of geekhood, but now that my darn phone is running the stuff perhaps it is time to try and understand. Also I installed Ubuntu on my work PC a few months back, as some sort of convoluted and probably unnecessary intermediate stage while I was shuffling Windows licenses around, and I was very impressed. It was a silly thing that really got me – you could apply amusing effects to the whole desktop, stretching it like a rubber sheet, with a degree of responsiveness and realism I’d have thought impossible for my basic graphics hardware. I’ve never seen anything like that on Windows or OS X. Also there was the fact that you could download programs to do what you wanted without even having to consider the possibility of their being evil.
My besmitten-ness faded however as soon as I hit a snag. If I have a problem on Windows I can usually fix it. Hell, I can always fix it, some way or another. I’ve used Windows for work daily these last ten years, I’ve had to. But I come across a problem in Linux, I have simply no idea what to do.
And part of me says, maybe it should stay that way… My phone has a nice user-friendly system for installing and uninstalling apps, if something goes wrong I can simply remove the offending article or, if the worst comes to the worst, restore the phone to its factory conditions. And really, that is all I need to know.
But it’s no good. I can hear the siren’s song, with its refrain of “What does this do?” Before my eyes, suspended, is nature’s Big Red Button.