Free operating systems are not a new concept in the computer world,. (The academic versions of UNIX, Slackware, and FreeBSD come to mind.) Then a student of the University of Helsinki, Linus Torvalds announced in 1991 that he had created a very experimental operating system core called a kernel, based on a clone of UNIX called Minux.
This new operating system kernel later became known as Linux. Torvolds chose this UNIX variant because of the well-respected stability, design and functionality of the UNIX operating system developed by Bell Laboratories.
This new operating system kernel was refined for maximum performance on the Intel 386 microprocessor, which made this new Linux kernel platform specific. This generated criticism from some corners of the UNIX software world.
Traditionally, UNIX was independent of platform, meaning that you could use the softeware with different computer processors without much trouble. This didn’t stop Torvalds from continuing to develop his kernel.
His efforts eventually led him to the free software community where programmers got behind his efforts and contributed to the new kernel. However, long before Torvalds started work on his Linux kernel, Richard M. Stallman left his job at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab to develop a UNIX-like operating system.
He formed the Free Software Foundation and developed the GNU General Public License (GPL). Stallman began working on various software programs for his GNU operating system project. (By the way, GNU is pronounced with a hard G, ga-nu)
By 1991, he had most of the software pieces of the GNU operating system complete with the exception of the kernel. In 1990, he started working on the kernel and named it HURD (Hird of UNIX-Replacing Daemons). Hird stands for Hurd of Interfaces Representing Depth.
According to an interview with Stallman, people interested in the GNU project began to put Torvald’s Linux kernel with Stallman’s GNU operating system to form the GNU/Linux operating system. The Free Software Foundation believes, of course, that software should be free. This includes the source code for the executable programs.
When they say free, they mean it. The foundation, which developed the GNU General Public License (GPL), promotes sharing of free software (including the source code). The purpose of this is to allow the programming community to make changes to the code.
According to the GPL, no software that claims this license can be distributed without the source code. When source code is included, the programming community can respond to defects, bugs, and cracks faster. A fix for a commercial operating system can take up to six months to be released, compared to a few days in the Linux world.
Just because software is free and the source gets included doesn’t mean that it’s a free-for-all on the program. Once a developer releases GPL software, any licensing changes made to that software must be made with the consent of the author. However, you can freely distribute, modify, and use it.
Although most software released with Debian uses the GPL and is free, some software is not free as it is sold commercially. However, most software for Linux is free. The Open Source community differs slightly from the Free Software movement, although both desire to see freely available software.
The Open Source movement is less concerned with whether anyone makes a profit along the way, but more concerned with the distribution of free software. Eric Raymond cofounded the Open Source Software Group out of a concern that businesses weren’t getting the word.
As a result of his efforts, some companies have adopted the Open Source philosophy. One such company, Cygnus Solutions, produced the GNUPro Developers Kit as an Open Source product. Red Hat acquired this product, which is now called GNUPro ETS.
Having corporations involved in the development and promotion of Linux helps everyone. Companies bring training, certification, and support to an otherwise hobby operating system. Without this kind of support, many people (and companies) stay away from a product to avoid its potential failure of an unknown future.
As more companies get behind a system—for better or worse—it gains more credibility in the minds of businesses. Therefore, having companies involved in the development of Linux is a good thing.