Saturday, 3 July 2010

Linux - a breakthrough technology?

(From a posting at LinkedIn)

I'm interested to see all the folks who've nominated Linux as their breakthrough technology. The thing is, Linux isn't a breakthrough technology, and never has been. When it was first written, it was already outmoded. It was designed only for a limited range of Intel PC hardware. It had a monolithic kernel that had to be recompiled any time you needed to change the options. The code was OKish, but not particularly smart, and there was nothing there that advanced the science of operating system design - in fact, quite the opposite. It was a college project.

What it had in its favour was one thing only: it was free, devised as a free alternative to Andy Tannenbaum's Minix.

And "free" is the breakthrough technology here. Even this wasn't unique. Richard Stallman, with his GNU project, started in the early 1980s, pioneered development and licensing of software that was completely free to use and modify. With Stallman's GNU toolkit welded to the Linux kernel, there was at last a usable, _free_ operating system, with source code for all to see. That's where I came in, at kernel version 0.12. The whole thing was amazingly robust and non-buggy, even at such an early stage.

In the subsequent development - essentially a full redesign - of the Linux kernel, it acquired platforms as diverse as the Acorn Archimedes and big IBM mainframe iron. It gained the ability to load and unload device drivers dynamically, whilst running, meaning that kernel recompiles became unnecessary. Its very freeness lended it to exploratory projects that led to new products, making it the cause celebre of the embedded systems world. And because it was licensed under the GNU Public Licence, modifications became integrated into the mainline kernel. Despite all that, there's still not all that much in Linux that's leading-edge, other than some funky filesystems.

So if you're tempted to nominate Linux as the technology that changed everything, think again. The leading edge technologies that changed your life were twofold. The first was called Richard Stallman, a man who wanted to change the world, and make software free, with source code visible to all. The second, made at his behest, a technology created by a lawyer: the Gnu Public Licence.

A man and a contract. Who knew?

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