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Key Takeaways

  • Linux, a highly versatile operating system, offers security, customizability, and low hardware usage, making it a top choice for casual users and developers.
  • Linux traces its roots back to 1991 when Linus Torvalds created it as a free operating system, unaware of the success it would achieve over the next 32 years.
  • Linux emerged during the Unix Wars as an alternative to proprietary software, and with contributions from the GNU project, it became a fully functioning operating system and gained popularity worldwide.

Linux is one of the most popular operating systems besides Windows and MacOS. Its high focus on security, customizability, and portability, together with low hardware usage, make it highly versatile for casual users and developers alike.

Linux wasn’t always a large ecosystem comprising hundreds of distributions. In fact, the OS was originally created by a 21-year-old Linus Benedict Torvalds as a kernel that mimicked Unix, and on August 25, 1991, he publicly announced his plans to create a free operating system. Little did he know that 32 years down the line, this hobby project of his would end up becoming one of the most successful innovations to grace the tech industry.

Unix Wars

Our history lesson on Linux involves traveling back to 1969, when Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie of AT&T Bell Lab, developed an operating system called Unics, or Unix, as it came to be known later on. The OS saw immense popularity in academic institutions, and soon different variants of Unix started popping up. Unfortunately, this resulted in multiple manufacturers seeking to dominate the market with their own version of Unix, giving rise to licenses and patents from AT&T and ushering the OS industry into a tumultuous era called Unix Wars.

The birth of the GNU project

While the big-name brands were fighting for dominance over the Unix market, Richard Stallman sought to break free from proprietary software by initiating the development of the GNU project in 1983. In his email dating back to September 1983, Stallman dubbed it “Free Unix” and planned to make this OS more accessible for users than Unix.

By 1990, GNU had amassed almost all the major components required to create a fully functioning operating system. Well, almost everything, because GNU still lacked a kernel. Sure, the Hurd microkernel began development in 1990, but it remained unpopular within the GNU community, leaving the playing field open for another competitor, namely Linux.

Linus and Linux

In 1991, Linus purchased an i386 PC that came with the DOS operating system and only used the OS for a few days to play Prince of Persia before he received 16 floppy disks containing MINIX. Back then, MINIX’s license didn’t allow users to modify the operating system’s source code, and Linus was also dissatisfied with the design choices implemented by Andrew S. Tanenbaum, the creator of MINIX. Linus preferred the Unix OS that powered his university desktops, but he was unable to afford it and decided to create a free operating system that could offer the same functionality as Unix.

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A screenshot of the email that Linus sent to the comp.os.minix newsgroup to publicly announce the development of his new operating system
Source: comp.os.minix (Google Groups)

On August 25, 1991, he sent the historical email to comp.os.minix asking the community members about the features they’d like to see implemented in his OS. On September 17 of the same year, he uploaded version 0.01 of the Linux kernel on Unfortunately, the first-ever release of what would later be known as Linux was extremely barebones and failed to execute properly as it relied on MINIX for compilation.

Subsequently, Linus released v0.02 on October 5, 1991, which became the first official version of his hobby project. This release was significantly better than v0.01 and even offered support for multiple GNU tools, including bash and GCC. Linus would spend the next couple of months releasing newer versions of Linux, with each update bringing new features to the kernel. 1992 marked a turning point for Linux when Linus decided to release his kernel under the GNU GPL License. This allowed developers from both GNU and Linux communities to create a highly capable version of the GNU/Linux OS, which Linus deployed as v0.99 in December 1992.

How Linux got its name

Interestingly, Linus never called his innovation Linux because he thought the name sounded egotistical. Instead, he wanted to go with ‘Freax,’ a combination of the words free, freak, and x (from Unix). In fact, he even stored the kernel files under the Freax moniker for almost six months. Luckily, the Freax name never came to be.

When Linus first uploaded Linux files to in September 1991, the FTP server was overseen by Ari Lemmke, who — bless his sound naming sense — didn’t warm up to the idea of calling it Freax and decided to go ahead with the name Linux without consulting Linus.

Linux, 32 years later

Threads app icon in Ubuntu Linux app drawer

And here we are, 32 years since the day Linus announced the development of his free operating system. Having undergone tons of upgrades and license changes, the modern-day Linux boasts a staggering number of distributions powering its ecosystem. It’s safe to say that Linus’ creation took the world by storm with the "free as in freedom" philosophy behind Linux. Even though it has strong competition from Windows and MacOS, Linux is unrivaled in the server market, with a majority of servers all over the globe running on Linux.

What's more, there are tons of laptops that run Linux right out-of-the-box, which is a testament to the fact that the OS has a strong following in the PC community. With its open-source and community-driven nature, Linux continues to shape the technology landscape one distro at a time.