As we sit in front of the latest version of Linux Mint, Ubuntu, or openSUSE, revelling in the glorious animated desktops, taking pleasure in the ease-of-use the GUI grants and enjoying the fact that 99% of our hardware works perfectly out of the box, do we ever wonder how our favourite operating system got to this point? Do we consider and appreciate the amount of time and effort that a long list of developers has taken in reaching this Zen-like state of user and OS? Most likely, not.
A quick reminisce of Linux distro’s long gone made us think one day about the history of this wonderful OS and its journey over the last couple of decades. When was it born? How did it evolve? What distro’s stand out in history as the pivotal turning point, which changed a humble bedroom project into the desktop OS we have today? And, which poor distro’s fell by the wayside, as failed crumpled heaps.
– 0AD to 1991: In the beginning, there was Unix. Created by the great bearded ones, Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie, in 1969. After that, throughout the eighties, a number of projects started life, all based on the encompassing vision that is Unix. From Richard Stallman’s GNU Project, the Berkley Software Distribution (BSD), the book ‘Operating Systems: Design and Implementation’ by Professor Andrew S. Tanenbaum and to MINIX (Mini-Unix) which was released to the academic world in conjunction with the aforementioned book. But it wasn’t until 1991 that a young Finnish student, called Linus Torvalds, would combine all of the ingredients that made up those landmark systems into a kernel that would take the world by storm.
– 1991: There are many legends that tell of the start of Linux; one of which is: Linus, while playing around in MINIX, piped data to his hard drive instead of his modem and wiped out the MINIX partitions he had created, thus leading to his frustration of the limitations of the OS he decided to create his own. Another being, he wrote the kernel to gain better functionality of the new Intel 386 machine he was using. Another still is that he was barred from further improving MINIX, and so went on to develop his own. Whatever the real story may be, he successfully created a free terminal emulator that was based on MINIX, which was based on Unix, that would eventually become the workings for an operating system kernel, and on the 25th August 1991, Linus posted this famous message on the MINIX Newsgroup:
“From: torvalds@klaava.Helsinki.FI (Linus Benedict Torvalds)
Subject: What would you like to see most in minix?
Summary: small poll for my new operating system
Date: 25 Aug 91 20:57:08 GMT
Organization: University of Helsinki
Hello everybody out there using minix –
I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and
professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing
since april, and is starting to get ready. I’d like any feedback on
things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat
(same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons)
among other things).
I’ve currently ported bash(1.08) and gcc(1.40), and things seem to work.
This implies that I’ll get something practical within a few months, and
I’d like to know what features most people would want. Any suggestions
are welcome, but I won’t promise I’ll implement them :-)”
After that, FTP servers around the world became a-buzz with versions of Linux (originally named ‘Freax’) which grew at an astounding rate due to the number of contributors involved.
– 1991: Version 0.01 of Linux is a far cry from what’s available these days, but if you want to get your hands dirty, point your browsers to, https://mirrors.edge.kernel.org/pub/linux/kernel/Historic/linux-0.01.tar.gz, and download the 71KB kernel in all its glory; along with the release notes from https://mirrors.edge.kernel.org/pub/linux/kernel/Historic/old-versions/RELNOTES-0.01.
Unfortunately we can’t stay in 1991, needless to say though, Linux evolved into a fully blown OS, with the Manchester Computing Centre creating one of the first distributions that used a combined boot/root disk, named MCC Interim Linux.
1992 to 1994 –
Not much of a time jump, but between 1992 and 1994 we saw the rise of the most influential founders of the modern Linux desktop: Slackware, Red Hat and Debian, along with the Linux Kernel growing to become 0.95, the first to be capable of running the X Window System.
– 1992: Slackware had something of a rocky start, despite being one of the first systems to adopt the ‘new’ Linux kernel at that time. Slackware started life as SLS, the Softlanding Linux System, as founded by Peter MacDonald in 1992. SLS was quite ahead of its time as it was the first Linux distribution to contain not only the 0.99 Linux kernel, but also the TCP/IP stack and the X Windows System. However, SLS was a buggy beast at best, and it wasn’t long before it was superseded by Patrick Volkerding’s Slackware, which is crowned as the longest running Linux distro.
– 1993: SLS did more than just spawn Slackware, due to the frustrations of its buggy interface, another user found the motivation to go it alone and create a new branch of Linux distribution. In 1993 Ian Murdock went forth and gave birth to a system called ‘The Debian Linux Release’, which is allegedly named after his then girlfriend Debra Lynn and himself, Ian.
– 1994: As Slackware evolved, other distros began to form, using Slackware as the code base. One such distro that appeared on the scene in 1994 was the ‘Software und System-Entwicklung’, or as it was more commonly known, ‘S.u.S.E Linux’.
– 1994: One final distro that saw the light of day on 3rd November 1994 was called the ‘Red Hat Commercial Linux’, created by Marc Ewing and was so named after the similarly coloured hat he wore while at University.
– 1994: On 14th March 1994, Linux 1.0.0 was launched with a whopping 176,250 lines of code under its belt; thus was the start of something wonderful.
1995 to 1999 –
We take quite a leap now, as the next five years saw some of the greatest Linux distributions arise from the ‘big three’, along with some rather notable off-shoots of the Linux family tree; and including the infamous penguin attack of 1996. All this Linux history happening amid the dot com boom, incredible.
– 1995: Jurix Linux was an interesting distro that was notable for a number of reasons: it was allegedly the first distro to include a scriptable installer, allowing an admin-based install to copy the installation process across similar machines. It was one of the first to fully support bootp and NFS, and one of the first Linux systems intended to use EXT2. But what really made Jurix an important milestone in Linux history was the fact that it was the base system used for creating the openSUSE Linux that we know and use today.
– 1995: The Red Hat based branch of Linux OSs were a fertile bunch during this five-year stretch. Notable releases such as Caldera, Mandrake, TurboLinux, Yellow Dog and Red Flag all began life from the sudden big bang of the ever-evolving Linux kernel, which was now, from 1995 to 2000, in versions 1.2.0 to 2.2. In fact, version 2.0, launched in 1996, saw something like 41 releases in the series. It was this fast turn-around of the kernel, and the addition of some very important features that solidified the Linux operating system as the server OS of choice for IT professionals the world over. Version 2.0, for instance, had features such as SMP support, better memory management and could run on more types of processor. Version 2.2 heralded an improvement of SMP, support for the PowerPC architecture and a read-only capability for NTFS.
– 1996: While on holiday in Australia, Linus visited a zoo where he was bitten by a ferocious penguin. He was then infected with ‘penguinitis’, which makes the victim lay awake a night dreaming of penguins and becoming very fond of them – His words, not ours! Anyway, Linus liked penguins, they are “goofy and fun”, as he commented. As for the name ‘Tux’, again, according to Internet fable, this is from (T)orvalds (U)ni(X). So now you know.
– 1996: Debian based systems, although not as active as the Red Hat counterparts, began to grow and favoured a much less technical server room approach to their distros. Being more a desktop orientated OS, a Debian based distro was often displayed on the front of the popular magazines at the time, showing off such notable entries as: Libranet, Storm, Finnix and Corel Linux.
– 1996: Of course, the most notable of happenings during these five years, was the birth of KDE and Gnome. KDE (Kool Desktop Environment) was founded in 1996 by Matthias Ettrich, a student at the University of Tübingen, who proposed not just a set of working applications, but also an entire desktop environment for them to work in. No longer did users have to fiddle around in CDE or X11 based environments, now we had Qt! By 1998 KDE version 1.0 was open to the world, and the first distro to use it was Mandrake. By 2000, version 2.0 was out and featured a greatly improved system, with Konqueror, KOffice and KIO networking.
– 1997: Miguel de Icaza and Federico Mena announced the development of a new desktop environment and accompanying applications. Based on GTK+ this new desktop environment was called Gnome. Interestingly, according to Internet folk-lore, the first Linux OS to feature Gnome, was Red Hat. Gnome fast became an acceptable desktop environment, being quick, malleable and very friendly for the average user, and by May 2000 Gnome 1.2 ‘Bongo’ was released.
– 1998: Oracle and Sun announced official support for Linux, as the OS becomes increasingly popular and more system admins start to adopt it in their server rooms.
– 1999: Red Hat goes public and achieves the eighth biggest first day gain on Wall Street, further fuelling the rise of Linux.
2000 to 2005 –
The next five years saw an incredible surge of Linux-powered computers hitting the media, with further improvements to the kernel, heaps of new applications and the appearance of the first Live Distro.
– 2000: Knoppix, a friendly Debian based distro developed by Klaus Knopper, was also one of the most popular of its time. It was noteworthy for many reasons, but the main one was the fact that it could boot directly from the CD. True, this is something we take for granted these days, or to be fair, don’t really even consider now since optical media for the PC is drawing to a close; but Knoppix 1.4, as released on 30th September 2000, could be inserted into any PC and boot into a fully working Linux, with access to a massive range of hardware and the ability to communicate and automatically connect to almost any network available at that time. Knoppix set the bar for other Linux distros to follow, and from its humble beginnings it spawned quite the family tree of Knoppix based distros, many of whom are still with us today.
– 2000: With all these pre-built distros now becoming the flavour of the month, and starting to look vaguely like Microsoft’s OS offerings, a project was started to help get Linux users back in touch with what makes Linux work. Linux From Scratch (LFS) was conceived, along with a book, by Gerard Beekmans, which gave users instructions on how to build their own Linux system from source.
– 2000: Linux is freedom, and it must be allowed to grow. But to ensure the protection and the advancement of Linux a group must be formed to help keep Linux independent. So, in 2000 the Linux Foundation was formed, to sponsor the work of Linus and the developing community, in making and improving Linux, but to also defend it and keep it within the core values of freedom, collaboration and education. A bit like The Avengers, but without tight-fitting suits.
– 2001: A pivotal moment in the Linux kernel came with version 2.4, released on 4th January. Version 2.4 contained support for USB, PC Cards, ISA Plug and Play and went on to include Bluetooth, RAID and EXT3. In fact 2.4.x was the longest supported kernel, ending with 22.214.171.124 in 2011 and demonstrated just how versatile and powerful the Linux kernel had become from the early days of 1.0.
– 2002: Red Hat, having now enjoyed some time on the stock market, decided that although they made some money via the support of their free Red Hat Linux OS, the time had come to adopt a more business-like and commercial approach. From this came a two-way split, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 2.1 was born, with kernel 2.4.9, more stability and long-term support for the enterprise user; and the Fedora Core for the community distribution. Interestingly, with RHEL being open source, Red Hat makes the source code freely available on their FTP servers, which several groups downloaded and compiled to their own distros, (chiefly to remove the Red Hat referencing and repositories). CentOS, Oracle Linux, CERN and Scientific Linux are notable examples of such distros; all the goodness of a well-built distro, but without access to the mighty hat’s expert knowledge and software.
– 2002: December of 2002 saw the release of a notable distro, CRUX. With special emphasis of the ‘keep it simple’ theme that had become popular during this time, CRUX was extremely light-weight and focused on the developer as opposed to the end user. In a time when Linux distros were starting to grow exponentially, and vied for the position of the replacement to Windows, CRUX took a different look and thinned themselves down to the bone; becoming a welcomed minimalist distro. What’s notable about CRUX though, was the fact that it was the inspiration and base for the incredibly popular, Arch Linux.
– 2003: with kernel 2.4 firmly doing so well, version 2.6 was announced on 18th December. With it came support for PAE, new CPUs, improved 64-bit support, 16TB file system sizes, EXT4 and much more.
– 2004: As the Linux distro was now approaching an almost Zen-like harmony with user and PC, it was still deemed as being distant to those who preferred the flavourings of Microsoft. Therefore, a new philosophy was needed. Something that would make Linux more personal, and become more human: something Ubuntu. Based on Debian, Ubuntu’s aim was to create an easy-to-use Linux desktop that could be updated to include the latest offerings by the end user with very little experience in Linux. With the release of Ubuntu 4.10, the Warty Warthog, on 20th October 2004 this dream was realised. There’s little than can said regarding the rise of Ubuntu, its popularity grew to such a point where it, and the rest of the Ubuntu family tree, have become one of the most well-known Linux distributions in the world.
2006 to 2012 –
– 2006: Of the many differing distros that were launched from 2006 onwards, one became the most popular Linux distro of recent times. Linux Mint 1.0, Ada, was released in 2006 with a heady mixture of FOSS and proprietary software this ‘works-out-of-the-box’ Linux distro briefly followed the Ubuntu base until 2007, when it started to use its own code base. Linux Mint has adapted itself to embrace and offer the newest technologies, while still keeping an ear to the ground and listening to its users; hence the huge support for this great distro.
– 2007/8: KDE4 was released this year and was met with some criticism due to the lack of stability, with Linus himself stating that KDE 4.0 was a “break everything” and “half-baked” release. However, users began to enjoy the Plasma desktop, and the cutting-edge look and feel, so that by the time KDE 4.2 was released in 2009, everyone had forgot about the terrible experience they had previously. What a fickle bunch we users are.
– 2008: The 23rd September saw the release of the most popular Linux-based operating systems ever; although 90% of its users have no idea that it’s Linux based at all. That OS is Android. Version 1.0 was launched with the HTC Dream and could achieve everything you’d expect from a modern smartphone, but it was buggy. Version 1.1 fixed most of the bugs, but it wasn’t until version 1.5 ‘Cupcake’ that Android really started to get interesting and pave the way for smartphones to take over the world.
– 2011: Ubuntu had gone from strength to strength during this time. It was regularly the top of the Linux user charts, it had a huge fan base and it was easy to use. Then, one sunny April day, the fourteenth release of Ubuntu came about, with a slightly different look: Unity. Apart from KDE4 and Gnome 3, never has such venom been spat at a desktop interface as with Unity. It’s safe to say that nearly everyone at the time hated it, and many still do (despite the regular updates until Canonical abandoned it recently). Ubuntu fell from favour and never really regained the popularity it enjoyed so much in its early years.
– 2011: After some years with the 2.6.x kernel, version 3.0 was finally released with the following note: “NOTHING. Absolutely nothing.” As quoted by Linux. Indeed, due to the kernel numbers getting too high, and the 2.6.x notation getting out of hand, Linus decided that a new number was called for. Version 3.0, there you have it.
– 2011: After the debacle that was KDE4 some years earlier, you’d think that those who created desktop environments would have learned what the public liked. This obviously hadn’t reached the ears of the Gnome team, who in April of this year launched Gnome 3.0. Like lemmings, users of Linux ran towards the cliff and threw themselves off in favour of KDE, or earlier versions of Gnome; such was its effect on the Linux community. The damage was done, and Gnome is still paying for it, with the likes of Linux Mint offering users an alternative desktop environment, in the form of MATE and Cinnamon. However, to be fair, Gnome has managed to scrape back its user base and now provides a modern, flashy, yet stable and clean environment
2012 – Present Day
Distributions come and go, and the last six years has seen some past favourites laid to rest, while others have sprung up in their place. The highest-ranking distro of the last six years has been Linux Mint, and it’s easy to see why. The distros combination of speed, stability, and ease of use has made it extremely popular not just with the Windows refugees, but also with more experienced Linux users.
Ubuntu has managed to remain reasonably steady. After having dropped Unity last year and now adopting GNOME, version 3.30 in the Ubuntu 18.10 release, the OS is starting to stabilise.
Other distros are enjoying popularity, too. Elementary, with its Pantheon desktop environment. Manjaro, an Arch-based distro, offering GNOME, KDE, and Xfce desktops, and the Debian-based MX Linux, with a fast-paced Xfce desktop, are all excellent additions; and can all claim their heritage from the above list of ancestral operating systems. What next? Who knows, perhaps in the next twenty five years we’ll celebrate the distro at the end of the universe.
Retro Linux distros
Should you wish to try out any of these distros, then take a look at the following:
For SLS, pay a visit to http://www.ibiblio.org/pub/historic-linux/distributions/sls-1.03/, and download version 1.03, which contains kernel 0.99 alpha and XFree 386 1.3.
For Slackware 1.1.2 go to http://www.ibiblio.org/pub/historic-linux/distributions/slackware-1.1.2/.
Red Hat 1.0 “Mother’s Day”, can be found at http://www.ibiblio.org/pub/historic-linux/distributions/redhat-mothers-day-1.0/.
For Debian 0.91, as released in January 1994, http://www.ibiblio.org/pub/historic-linux/distributions/debian-0.91/.
For Linux Mint 1.0 can be found at the main Linux Mint site: https://www.linuxmint.com/edition.php?id=3