When talking about Linux, users often think about the distributions they use — Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian, openSUSE, and so on. But in the beginning, there were no Linux distributions — users had to go through quite a bit of fuss to have a working Linux-based system. The first distributions haven't survived the test of time, but one of the earliest — Slackware Linux — is still going strong after nearly 18 years.
The first Linux distribution was MCC Interim Linux, and it was followed by the predecessor to Slackware. Called Soft Landing Systems (SLS) Linux, the first distro had a few problems that a student named Patrick Volkerding decided to fix. It preceded Debian by a short time, though at one point Volkerding says that he and Ian Murdock discussed merging the two distributions.
How did Volkerding decide to do a Linux distribution? He didn't, exactly. According to an interview, he started by fixing up SLS to deal with some of the problems that it had when he was installing it in the PC lab. "I put together improved SLS releases for my professor through version 0.99pl9. By this time I'd gotten ahead of SLS on maybe half of the packages in the distribution, and had done some reconfiguration on most of the remaining half. I'd done some coding myself to fix long-standing problems like a finger bug that would say users had 'Never logged in' whenever they weren't online. The difference between SLS and Slackware was starting to be more than just cosmetic."
One of the things that Slackware showed, very early on, was the importance of having good licensing. Originally, Volkerding didn't plan on doing Slackware for long and simply was patching SLS. But the original author of SLS (Peter MacDonald) didn't license the SLS installation scripts for distribution — so Volkerding was forced to write his own.
Where does the name "Slackware" come from, anyway? It comes from a reference to the Church of the SubGenius and "Slack" otherwise known as "the sense of freedom, independence, and original thinking that comes when you stop worrying about personal goals." Freedom, independence, and original thinking sound pretty much in line with a Linux distro, right?
Even though Slackware seems like a one-man show, it really isn't. Volkerding has been its "Benevolent Dictator For Life" (long before Mark Shuttleworth took the title for Ubuntu... and before there was an Ubuntu), but a lot of contributors have helped with the effort. In his 1994 interview, Volkerding credits quite a few contributors for helping with various bits of the Slackware distribution.
Others who've helped significantly over the years include Eric Hameleers, Robby Workman, Alan Hicks, Vincent Batts, David Cantrell, Chris Lumens, and many others. (See Eric Hameleers' presentation, "A History of Slackware Development (PDF) for a longer list of core contributors over the years.)
How Linux (and Slackware) Have Changed
If you look over the Unofficial History of Slackware Releases, you'll have an idea of the steady progression Linux has made over the years. In 1994, a Slackware install consisted of 51 floppies (that's the 1.44MB floppies) and shipped with XFree86 2.0, TeX, Pine, Emacs 19.19, and more. This was during the Linux kernel's pre-1.0 days.
The first Slackware release with a 1.0 Linux kernel came out in March of 1994 — and a full install would consume a whopping 200MB of disk space. As this LWN piece details, a 1.0 Slackware release provided the user with TCP/IP, support for ext2fs, MSDOS, and "even supported a PS/2 style mouse." The default window manager (not desktop environment) was OpenLook.
It wasn't until Slackware 2.0 that Volkerding started making a go at selling Slackware to fund his time and effort in developing the distribution. Initially he worked with an outfit called Morse Telecommunication, then Walnut Creek CD-ROM to sell Slackware. Eventually Walnut Creek merged with BSDI and became BSDi. This was still very early days for Linux, and there was a feeling at the time that BSD could be a popular and commercially important operating system — without the dreaded GPL that many businesses failed to understand. (Some, sadly, still do.) BSDi was a great example of this — it was bought by Wind River — an embedded company that initially had great fear of the GPL. After purchasing BSDi, Slackware was unceremoniously dumped and Volkerding had to go it alone on Slackware.
Though the Slackware project is supported by CD sales, it's not a particularly commercial distribution. Volkerding has stayed true to the Slackware philosophy of producing "the most UNIX-like" Linux distribution. It follows standards like the Filesystem Hierarchy Standard, and sticks close to the upstream projects without making a lot of changes. Over the years, Slackware has stuck with its text-mode installer, package sets, and fairly basic packaging system while other distributions have pursued easy of use and/or enterprise needs. Instead, Slackware has long been a distribution for users who want to get their hands dirty when administering their systems.
But never let it be said that Slackware wasn't willing to co-opt a popular marketing tactic — or at least mock one. In the wake of Windows 95, Slackware released "Slackware 96" in July of 1996. This was the first release to feature the 2.0 Linux kernel — a major update to the kernel that brought support for SMP, and a wider range of architectures beyond x86 for the Linux kernel.
Slackware 4.0, in May of 1999, was the first to require a full 1GB of disk space, and was the first release to feature KDE. This included the 2.2.6 kernel. The first Slackware with GNOME was the 7.1 release, which was from June 2000. That one didn't stick, though, and Slackware dropped GNOME with the 10.1 release. It might seem like quite a lot to go from 4.0 to 7.1 in just over a year — but that's because Slackware skipped the interim versions because of "version inflation" practiced by other distributions. Yes, users often were confused by the version numbers in the olden days — and many assumed that one vendor's 6.0 must be better than another vendor's 4.0, without looking at the actual software included.
Slackware still averages a release about once a year. The most recent release, Slackware 13.37, continues its tradition of simple tools and hewing to the upstream releases of software. It includes KDE 4.5.5, the 2.6.37 kernel, GNU Bash 4.1, Perl 5.12.3, and Firefox 4.0.
If you want a taste of what Linux was like in the early days, take Slackware 13.37 for a test drive. It's easy to install, and gives users lots of control over their systems — just like it did back in 1993 when it was the new kid on the block.
For more information on the 20th Anniversary of Linux, please visit the 20th Anniversary of Linux website.
You can also watch the Story of Linux on YouTube.