By Andre M. Maier
On October 5, 1991, Linus Torvalds officially published the first version of his homemade Linux kernel. Today, 24 years later, a large number of IT professionals agree that best of Linux is yet to come. I would like to take this opportunity to explain why I share this opinion and what I think should be done to bring the future forward.
1. Technological Aspect
Technologically, Linux is a slightly modified clone of the Unix operating system. Thus, it encompasses all the advantages of Unix. Unix was developed in the early 1970s, long before Microsoft and Apple were founded. Back in those days, computers were extremely expensive, so even universities and companies could only afford one computer. This computer had to be shared among many users, who only had “dumb terminals” (consisting of a keyboard and a monochrome cathode ray tube monitor) on their desks. As there were no hard drives, flash drives, or local disk drives, all data was stored centrally in the data center. It was clear, therefore, that Unix had to be a highly available operating system that supports multi-user, multi-processing, and networking features. Because the hardware configuration was very different between the data centers, Unix also had to be scalable and modular, which is often referred to as the “Unix Philosophy”.
Microsoft just didn’t have these requirements in mind when they designed their Disk Operating System (DOS) and Microsoft Windows. In fact, they didn’t need to, because during the 1980s, hardware became cheap enough to allow more and more people to have their private “data center” right on their desks. It was the dawn of the Personal Computer (PC). In the 1980s, nobody would have thought that by 2015 we would share our thoughts on some global network, a.k.a the Internet. I’m pretty sure that if you came up with the idea of a smart watch running an operating system, nobody would have taken your serious back then.
Times have changed and so have the requirements. In today’s technological world, we had to get back to the old “values” such as networking, multitasking, multi-user support, high availability and high scalability. While Microsoft was struggling to add these features to their already existing products, Linux (as well as Unix) didn’t have to undergo any major changes at all. Anyone who has some experience in software development will agree that any changes in the requirements during the process of development inevitably increase the risk of bugs.
For me, this seems to be the main reason why both Linux and Unix have succeeded in mobile computing (Android, Apple iOS), why most of the Internet’s infrastructure is based on Linux, and why more than 99.99% of the TOP500 supercomputers in the world are running some Linux distribution.
2. Philosophical Aspect
Although Linus Torvalds first published the Linux kernel under his own license, he released it under the GNU General Public License (GPL) only one year later. At this point, it would make sense for me to write about the idea behind GNU and the free software movement, but there is a great TED talk by no other than the founder of the GNU Project himself. So let’s give Richard Stallman a chance to sum up his remarkable idea.
Anyone in the world may have his or her own definition of what freedom is. And anyone in the world may decide for himself or herself how much convenience he or she is ready to sacrifice. We all, however, should be striving for a society in which anyone who chooses one over the other is aware of what he is about to give up. Also, people should understand that, in this universe, there is no way to claim both freedom and convenience at the same time.
What’s more, there is no 100.0% freedom like there is no 100.0% convenience. Any software, no matter how convenient it was designed to be, can cause inconveniences. Likewise, anyone who uses a computer will inescapably lose a significant amount of freedom, no matter what software he uses. From my point of view, it should be socially acceptable to refrain from using any computers at all. I’m sure this would have saved us a lot of political trouble, too. German Chancellor Merkel’s sentence “Das Internet ist Neuland für uns alle.” (The Internet is uncharted terrain for all of us) caused an uproar among the German citizens, who felt being called “incompetent”. In my personal opinion, Merkel was absolutely right, as technology has evolved way faster than education, and it still is.
Most people today have never been taught to think about where exactly they stand between freedom and convenience. They know the latest gimmicks and keyboard shortcuts in commercial, non-free software products, but they don’t know the inevitable consequences of their actions. Would you feel vulnerable if, for some reason, whatever text or media you have entered into your computer ended up published publicly on the web? Do you really think that laws, contracts, user agreements, and promises are going to stop companies and governments from doing unethical and immoral things? Think about this question and discuss it with a loved one.
Linux is not just a product, but a well proven and tested technological concept. Its portability and high scalability makes it a perfect operating system not only for mobile devices and servers, but also for most components in the “Internet of Things”. So there is no doubt Linux will face a bright future.
We should get our students involved in Linux and free software. Currently, almost none of my younger students have sufficient knowledge in this area. All they have been taught in previous schools was how to play with proprietary non-free software. Most of them even don’t know that there is an alternative.
It is human to always look for the easiest and most convenient path. But it is a teacher’s job to take his students on alternative routes, too. Someone who has never seriously tried to gain at least some basic knowledge of Linux will never be able to discuss its merits and demerits. I definitely agree with most of what Richard Stallman has to say about Linux in schools: http://www.gnu.org/education/edu-schools.en.html