February 8, 2012

Unsung Heroes of Linux, Part One

Everyone knows and loves Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux. Mark Shuttleworth, the creator of Ubuntu Linux, is pretty famous. Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation and creator of the GPL, is equal parts famous and infamous. But surely there is more to Linux and Free/Open Source software than these three. And indeed there are thousands upon thousands of people toiling away fueling the mighty FOSS engine; here is a small sampling of these important contributors who make the FOSS world go 'round.

Lady Ada, Adafruit Industries

Lady Ada is Limor Fried, electronics engineer and founder of Adafruit Industries. My fellow crusty old-timers remember way way back when Radio Shack was actually about do-it-yourself electronics hacking instead of the passive brain-decay of cell phones and big-screen TVs.

Adafruit Industries is a welcome replacement for us weirdos who like to take things apart and figure out how they work. Adafruit Industries sells Arduino boards, kits, and related parts and tools. Even more valuable is the wealth of well-illustrated tutorials. You can start from scratch, with no electronics knowledge, and get a solid fundamental education in a few days' of reading and hands-on hacking.

Dr. Tony Sales, Vinux

Linux and FOSS should be leading the way in pioneering accessibility for Linux users with disabilities, because good design for disabled people is good design for everyone. One of the best accessibility projects is the Vinux distribution, which aims for out-of-the-box accessibility for visually impaired Linux users, including installation. This is a lot harder than it sounds — try it for yourself.

If you are looking for a way to make a significant contribution to Linux and to tech, consider the field of accessibility. None of us are getting any younger or healthier.

Dick MacInnis, Dream Studio

Dick MacInnis is a musician, composer, and all-around nerd. He created and maintains Dream Studio, a sleek multi-media Ubuntu spinoff for musicians, photographers, movie makers, and all creative artists. It's a super-nice customization that stays out of your way and lets you get down to business.

Akkana Peck, Rennaissance Nerd

Akkana is one of my favorite people. She used to race cars and motorcyles, flies little radio-controlled airplanes, is into astronomy, mountain biking, kayaking, photography, and all kinds of fun stuff.

Akkana is a versatile and talented coder who has worked at cool-sounding places like Silicon Graphics and Netscape, and currently works for a startup doing embedded Linux and Android work. Akkana wrote the excellent Beginning GIMP book and a bunch of first-rate Linux howtos for Linux Planet. She also writes all kinds of amazing technical articles on her Shallow Sky blog. What earned Akkana a place on this list is her generosity in sharing knowledge and helping other Linux users. Learning, doing, and sharing – isn't that what it's all about?

John Linville, Linux Wireless

The Linux Wireless project is a model that more FOSS projects should emulate. Back around 2006 or so kernel developer John Linville and his team took on the task of overhauling the Linux wireless stack. It was a mess of multiple wireless subsystems (Wavelan, Orinoco, and MadWifi). Drivers were all over the map in what functions they handled, sometimes conflicting with the kernel.

In just a couple of years, without fanfare, it was all significantly streamlined and improved, with a common driver base (mac80211) and assistance for vendors and end users. There are still some odds and ends to be worked out, but it's at the stage where most wireless network interfaces have plug-and-play native Linux support.

Jean Tourillhes, Wireless Tools for Linux

Jean Tourillhes was the core maintainer and primary documenter of the old Linux WLAN drivers and userspace tools. If it were not for Mr. Tourillhes wi-fi on Linux would have been brutish and nasty. (WLAN and wireless-tools have been replaced by the new Linux Wireless project.)


JACK is not a person, but the JACK Audio Connection Kit for Linux. JACK is a professional-level audio server for connecting audio software and hardware, like a switchboard, and brings professional low-latency audio production to Linux. Paul Davis was JACK's original author, and Jack O'Quin, Stephane Letz, Taybin Rutkin, and many other contributors have all added essential features and supported JACK in multiple important ways.

Jon Kuniholm, The Open Prosthetics Project

Jon Kuniholm, an Iraq war veteran who lost part of his arm in the service, is also a biomechanical engineer devoting his talents and open source methods to improving prosthetic limbs, which have advanced far more in cost than in functionality. Decades-old technology shouldn't be priced like it's cutting edge; the project aims to improve functionality and appearance, and make advanced designs available to anyone who wants them.

Linux OEM Vendors

There are doubtless more than the few that I know about, so please feel free to plug your own favorite independent Linux vendor in the comments. System76 and ZaReason are my favorites because they are true independent mom-and-pop shops that sell desktop Linux PCs without drama or excuses, they offer first-rate customer service and customizations without whining, and don't need a year to retool for a new Linux release.

Some other notable Linux OEMs:

Greg Kroah-Hartman, Linux Driver Project

Greg Kroah-Hartman launched the Linux Driver Project a few years ago to help vendors get drivers for their devices into the mainline kernel. The project has been a huge success, demonstrating yet again (as with Linux Wireless) that lending a friendly, helpful hand works better than yelling.

Denise Paolucci and Mark Smith, Dreamwidth

Dreamwidth Studios is a fork of LiveJournal by former LiveJournal staffers Denise Paolucci and Mark Smith. It is unusual for a FOSS project as it has a majority of women developers, and the whole community is known for being friendly and helpful to newcomers.

OpenTox, Cast of Thousands

The OpenTox project, led by coordinator Barry Hardy, is a global data-collection and analysis framework that aims to replace animal testing for chemical interactions and toxicity with predictive computer analysis.

Ken Starks, the Helios Initiative

Ken Starks does the kind of hard, hands-on advocacy that delivers the best results: rehabbing computers with Linux and giving them to children who can't afford to buy their own computers. Since the Helios Project moved into spiffy new quarters in Taylor, Texas they've expanded to building a computer lab and teaching classes.

Walter Bender, Sugar

Walter Bender was one of the chief designers of Sugar, the computer interface for young children that was originally created for the One Laptop per Child XO-1 netbook. When OLPC allowed as how they were maybe going to allow Windows XP on OLPC netbooks, Mr. Bender is credited by some for saving Sugar by leaving OLPC and founding Sugar Labs to continue its development independently. Sugar is included in a number of Linux distributions including Fedora, Debian, and Mint, and Sugar on a Stick is a complete bootable on a USB stick.

Yes, There is a Moral

There is a moral to this story, and that is that Linux is more than giant wealthy companies, or glamorous celebrity geeks, or an unruly rabble. (Three cheers for unruly rabble!). It is fundamental building blocks that anyone can learn to use to make the world a little bit better.

We know that there's more than a few unsung heroes and heroines of Linux and free software, though. Who do you consider a hero, and why? Stay tuned, we'll have more soon.

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