Twenty-six years ago this month, a geeky student in Finland released the Linux kernel to the world. Today, hundreds of millions of people are using Linux. Why? That’s a question I try to answer in my new book For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution.
Sure, you can explain Linux’s popularity today in terms of factors that exist in the present — its technical features, the dynamism of the open source community, the corporate backing that Linux enjoys today, and so on.
But, to understand what really launched Linux into the position it enjoys today, however, you need to know the history of Linux — as well as the history of the larger free and open source software universe.
You have to look at some big questions about Linux’s past, such as:
Why did Linux beat out much bigger and better-funded kernels, like GNUs and BSDs, to become probably the most important open source software project in history?
Why did Linus Torvalds, the student who created Linux, decide to give his code away for free?
Why did Linux programmers succeed in producing a feature-rich kernel so quickly, while so many other free software projects in the early 1990s struggled to get a working kernel up and running?
For Fun and Profit
I explore these questions and more in the book, which was published this month by MIT Press. This book isn’t about just Linux, though. It’s about the history of free and open source software writ large. However, explaining the what, why, and how of the Linux kernel’s history is a major focus of the book. The book tells the story of how Linux came to be what it is today. It not only explains the major events and personalities that shaped the kernel, but also considers why Linux followed the specific historical path that led to today — a path that no one could have foreseen back when Torvalds announced Linux on the Minix Usenet group in August 1991.
Other key topics covered in the book include the origins of Unix and Unix’s role in laying the foundation for the free software movement, the birth and evolution of Richard Stallman’s GNU project and the creation of open source Web platforms like Apache.
The book also critically reevaluates some of the traditional ways of thinking about the history of free and open source software. I argue, for example, that Stallman and GNU have been a lot more pragmatic — historically speaking, at least — than they receive credit for. Stallman may be a polarizing figure but measured from an historical perspective, neither he nor GNU are as dogmatic as they are sometimes portrayed. I also note that Torvalds doggedly opposed charging any money for Linux when he created the kernel — a fact that is easy to forget today, when Linux helps to sustain billion-dollar companies.
I explore, too, the complicated and controversial questions of whether projects like Ubuntu and Android have remained true to the original goals of the free software movement that helped create them — or whether these platforms engender more problems and distractions for free software hackers than they are worth. Through discussion of issues like these, the book brings the history of free and open source software up to the present day.
Why I Wrote this Book
It’s easy to find summaries online (and sometimes even in man pages) of the history of various free and open source software projects. But no one has told their story comprehensively or tried to explain why free and open source software was created, how the philosophies and practices associated with it have evolved over time, why some projects flourished while others fizzled — in short, why we live today in a world dominated by free and open source software, which few people would have predicted even just a decade ago.
The book is based on extensive research with original sources — things like Usenet archives, old mailing lists, and lots and lots of historical Slashdot threads. It is also informed by discussions with Torvalds, Stallman, and other important figures in the history of the free and open source software community.