A world without Linux: Where would Apache, Microsoft -- even Apple be today?

If Linux hadn't conquered the world, we'd all be running FreeBSD, maybe even on our desktops

Dabbling in alternative history is always a haphazard exercise. The intertwining of myriad factors and actions, mixed together in an infinitely complex historical equation that determines the future, renders any attempt to excise a certain variable essentially impossible. However, it can sometimes be educational and illuminating to try and poke holes in the edges of recent history to see where we might have wound up. Also, it's fun and potentially full of surprises.

Case in point: What would the world be like if Linus Torvalds hadn't uploaded his v0.0.1 Linux kernel to a public directory in 1991? What if the world never knew Linux?

[ Prove your expertise with the free OS in InfoWorld's Linux admin IQ test round 1 and round 2. | Track the latest trends in open source with InfoWorld's Open Sources blog and Technology: Open Source newsletter. ]

If we take a look back at the computing landscape in 1991, we find it's completely built on large, entrenched companies charging amazing amounts of money for their products. Whether you were running IBM mainframes or AS/400s, SunOS, HP-UX, AIX, or even VMS, you were working with a very expensive operating system on very expensive hardware.

All data was big data, and there wasn't much room for the midrange and low end of server-based computing. You either had a bunch of PCs churning through DOS apps, generally without a network, or you had a monolithic box in the back room that cost a ton. Computing was an ivory tower.

But when Linux appeared, the mindset was changing, especially in the computer science departments of universities and colleges. The academics wanted to be able to work on systems that didn't require tons of money to license. That spurred the development of Minix, an educational OS designed for use in universities, and it initially motivated Torvalds to begin coding the Linux kernel. Remove Torvalds and Linux from this picture, and assuming that all other variables stay the same (which is a big assumption), then Minix continues on as an educational tool and nothing more, and the monolithic gear continues to rule the computing landscape.

But wait. A few short years later, an operating system known as FreeBSD was made available for FTP download. Its popularity grew quickly, as many users familiar with BSD downloaded FreeBSD for themselves and set about improving it. Then followed the landmark lawsuits that led to BSD becoming open source and the BSD license allowing for the free use of the code. FreeBSD was quickly reworked to incorporate the newly freed code, and it became truly free FreeBSD 2.0 in January 1995.

Without Linux in this mix, I think it's safe to say the thousands and thousands of code hackers all over the world would have found FreeBSD, much as they found Linux. The desire and skills were present, and the licensing on FreeBSD made it extremely easy for anyone to jump into the game. Instead of all those collaborations pushing Linux forward, those efforts would've been focused on FreeBSD. This would have resulted in faster development of FreeBSD and could have eventually led to any number of forks finding traction in various industries.

1 2 Page 1
From CIO: 8 Free Online Courses to Grow Your Tech Skills