Twenty years ago, when Linus Torvalds first announced his new operating system project to a Usenet discussion group, he had no way of knowing that his creation would one day conquer the world.
"Just a hobby, [it] won't be big and professional," Torvalds wrote on Aug. 25, 1991. In a follow-up post, he added, "Simply, I'd say that porting [the OS to a different CPU] is impossible." Torvalds had begun the project as a fun way to teach himself about the Intel 80386 processor and nothing more. His greatest ambition was merely to see it work.
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It has done far better than that. Today, Linux -- as Torvalds's OS came to be called -- is available for just about every modern processor architecture and many archaic ones. It can power every kind of computing device, from PCs, netbooks, and smartphones to mainframes, supercomputing clusters, and beyond.
Linux is definitely "big and professional," having won the support of industry heavyweights such as Dell, IBM, HP, Novell, and Oracle. Red Hat, one of the first commercial Linux vendors, is now an S&P 500 company with a market capitalization of $7.3 billion.
The last 20 years haven't always been easy. Linux has made a few enemies, Microsoft foremost among them. It has faced its share of challenges, too, both technical and legal, and there are more hurdles ahead.
Nonetheless, as Linux enters its third decade, its opportunities have never been greater. Computing is changing, and Linux is not only benefiting from this change but is enabling it. Thanks to a shift beyond the PC, Linux is poised to become more than just an OS, but one of the most transformative forces in computing history -- and it's happening right under everyone's nose.
The OS the Internet built
That Linux is helping usher in a new computing age might come as a surprise to some. Linux has often been accused of following, rather than leading. Since 2003, the SCO Group has alleged that the open source OS violates intellectual property relating to Unix, and it's true that much of Linux's early market share came at the expense of costly commercial Unix variants, such as AIX, HP-UX, Solaris, and Tru64. Similarly, Microsoft has repeatedly claimed that Linux violates over 200 patents.
Linux has been innovative from its inception, however, in important ways. First, while the commercial Unix flavors ran on high-end systems based on RISC processors, Torvalds designed his OS for commodity Intel hardware, anticipating the trend toward low-cost x86 servers. Second, and even more crucial, while Microsoft was famously slow to adapt to the Internet, Linux has had the Internet at its core from the very beginning.