October 13, 2006

My first 10 years with Linux

Author: Joe Barr

I have now officially entered my second decade using Linux and free/open source software in a meaningful way. I began dabbling with Linux as early as 1995, but in June of 1996, I began using it for real when I created my first Web site. Today, my Linux desktop takes care of all my personal computing needs, both at work and at play. Here's one man's story of how he and Linux matured together.

The mid-'90s were tough years for me, financially at least. I lost my home to foreclosure in 1995, and moved into a single-wide trailer in a mobile home park in South Austin. Along with my home, I lost my BBS, The Red Wheelbarrow, because I could no longer afford the extra phone line it required. That was a big deal for me, because I was trying to make a go of it as a writer instead of a programmer, and the BBS gave me a place to express myself.

I was also publishing a newsletter, Papa Joe's Dweebspeak Primer, and selling it by subscription and at local book and PC stores around Austin. Not everyone laughed at me, riding around town in my little red pickup truck with "The Dweebspeak Primer" written large on both sides, delivering each new edition and picking up remainders once a month. But most people I knew, even my friends, at least smiled at the madness of it all. I don't blame them.

I finally got a break in my employment status in 1996, when I landed a gig as a COBOL contractor with the state. Prior to that, I had been working as a temporary clerk/typist at a different state agency, making just a bit more than minimum wage.

It was at one of the local stores that I heard about a small ISP in Austin that was offering ISDN access to the Internet at a reasonable rate. True to my geek nature, one of the first things I got with my fat new paycheck was an ISDN line and an account at that ISP.

I had already decided to fill the void created by the death of my BBS with a Web site, and I was hearing great things about Apache and Linux. I bought a copy of Caldera OpenLinux and started to work. My new ISP was run by one man with a T1 to his home. He helped me find a used router and told me how to configure it. He also helped me set up the routing on the Linux box. On June 8, 1996, I registered pjprimer.com as the domain name for the site.

Setting everything up to host the Web site was something of a chore, but it wasn't nearly as difficult as setting up a FidoNet BBS running Opus had been five years earlier. Once the site was up and running, there wasn't much to do except add a new page now and then as new issues of the newsletter were released.

It was at about that time that I started hanging out with some of the early movers in Austin's Linux crowd: Jep Hill and Stu Green, among others. I soon realized I wasn't the only OS/2 fan beginning to migrate to free software.

It wasn't long before a LUG grew out of those early meetings and began to chug along, outgrowing one location and moving to the next. It's still chugging along, by the way, and marvel of marvels, still holds weekly meetings, although egos and turf wars and the distance from North to South Austin have all contributed to the creation of several other LUGs in Austin today.

I have to admit that I did not learn much about Linux for the first year or two. It ran my Web site, and it worked, and I didn't have to do much administration. A couple years later I learned I should have been doing a few things to make it more secure, when I discovered that my box had been rooted and was hosting an IRC network without my knowledge.

In 1997, I began dual-booting Linux and OS/2 Warp, and that's when I began to learn more about it. My association with the crowd at the LUG, which was almost an underground organization at the time, and the constancy of Linux buzz I heard on the Internet, informed me that I had stumbled into something that was about to become the next big thing. Naturally, I began writing about Linux and the community around it. On July 4, 1999, I declared my independence from Windows, and have been running a Linux desktop happily ever since.

By 1998, Linux was no longer a secret. IT publishing company IDG decided to create a major Web site devoted to Linux, and chose its former InfoWorld back page columnist Nicholas Petreley to head it up. I was stunned to receive an email from Petreley that fall, saying that he had seen my work on my Web site, and asking if I would be interested in writing for them. Part of me wanted to crow about it, and shout, "Hey, who's laughing now?!" But I just couldn't believe it was really happening.

Mister THE Joe Barr
After my programming gig with the state was up, I found another position as a contractor at a software shop in Austin. I started out maintaining a point-of-sale system written in Informix 4GL and running on SCO, then taught myself C and began maintaining a POS system written in it. I kept that gig until 2001, when I was able to quit my day job entirely and earn my living strictly by writing.

My fiancée, Susan, was a contractor there as well, and she told me this story. Our manager kept remembrances of previous employees in his office. One day about six months after I quit programming the manager was interviewing a couple of recent computer science graduates from the University of Texas about a Linux-related position. They noticed that he had my old nameplate on his window sill. "Joe Barr?" they asked. "THE Joe Barr?"

The manager got such a kick out of that he brought them by Susan's desk to introduce them to her so she could convince them that, yes, THE Joe Barr had once worked there. Susan has used the term ever since to try and keep my and my ego in line. Whenever I get too big-headed, she starts to refer to me as "THE Joe Barr."

Earlier this year, at a trade show, someone asked if I were THE Joe Barr. I laughed, then told him about Susan calling me that. When I got back to Austin, I gave a report on the trade show at the LUG, and told them the story.

Several weeks later, I was doing another presentation at the LUG when a newcomer, all of about 11 years old, began to interrupt me to correct what I had just said. That's very annoying, by the way, especially when the person interrupting is right.

After the second or third time, defenseless against the facts, I was reduced to saying, "Hey, don't you know who you're talking to here?" A wise guy in the crowd chimed in with, "Yeah. That's THE Joe Barr." Another voice added, "That's Mister THE Joe Barr to you, kid!"

Shortly afterward, I changed my nick on IRC to MtJB.

I tell people today that Linux picked me up by the scruff of the neck and lifted me to new levels. That's certainly true in terms of readership, notoriety, and name recognition. Not many know the story of The Dweebspeak Primer, but a lot of Linux-geeks have heard of Joe Barr, or, as I am now known at the LUG, Mister THE Joe Barr.

What's different these days from things 10 years ago? Red Hat is making a profit, for one thing. Linux is not only driving server hardware sales and hosting Apache Web sites, it's appearing in handheld devices, personal video recorders, and cell phones. Its superior security has resulted in it being used by intelligence agencies like the NSA and the CIA.

The Linux community today is no longer just a bunch of hobbyists: there are suits and CEOs and venture capitalists and school administrators in our midst, not to mention an entire generation of system admins capable of maintaining both Linux and Windows servers. While the monopoly still maintains its death grip on the desktop market, it can't stop of the proliferation of Linux live CDs, which sidestep the barrier to adoption and continue to introduce Linux to those who would never think of installing it for themselves. Have you looked at Knoppix lately? It's a beautiful thing these days.

The X server doesn't crash as easily as it did when I first started using Linux, a situation which led to my learning a lot more about the command line than I would have otherwise. Today, with the magic of Xgl and Compiz, the coolest desktops in the world are running on Linux, not on Windows. It's the story of the ugly duckling all over again.

Speaking of crashes, the dot com crash had a lot of people wondering if Linux would survive. The fact that it has not only survived, but continued to thrive, is testament to the fact that Linux and free software are not just a fad or a flash in the pan. We've also survived the sneak attack by SCO, the scalability of Torvalds, and all of Microsoft's best efforts at slowing us down with misinformation ranging from bogus benchmarks to alleged disinterest by the business world. We've gained strength and momentum from each failed assault.

Many of the essential applications available to Linux are world class, every bit the equal or superior to their closed source and proprietary cousins. But there are still gaps to fill and holes to close. Device drivers are a mixed bag. There are more and better open source drivers available today, so much so that while a Windows install may have you swapping CDs for an hour or more to get the proprietary drivers you need for your printer or camera or NIC, modern Linux distributions usually detect the hardware and install the proper driver without your ever knowing about it.

Ten years on, Linux is no longer just a blip on the horizon or a cool alternative platform, or a choice made only for cost savings. Instead, it is being chosen by enterprises around the globe for reasons of security and reliability, as well as for cost savings and the freedom it offers from the chains of monopoly lock-in. I believe the course ahead is for more of the same. Even if world domination always remains just over the horizon, Linux is destined to become the dominant platform on server and desktop alike.


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