back to article Linux at 17 - What Windows promised to be

On October 5, 1991, the young man who would one day become the world's most famous programmer - and the brand name and poster boy for the open source software movement - sent a message to a newsgroup announcing the birth of what would become the Linux operating system. You can read that original message that marks the birth of …


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  1. Steen Hive

    What no GNU?

    Oh come on now! How is it possible to write a synopsis of 17 years of Linux without even *once* mentioning the OS itself? RMS would be turning in his grave, were he dead.

  2. Rob Beard

    Happy Birthday Linux!

    Whey hey, Linux is 17, does this mean it'll appear driving cars? :-)

    Seriously though, I'm amazed how far it's come in such little time. I remember first trying Slackware Linux back in 1995, it came on a PCW CD and was a pain in the arse to install. Now it's so easy to install even my technically illiterate mum could install it (well, maybe not just yet but it's pretty much there once she learns how to turn the computer on!).

    I'm just looking forward to what will come in the next 17 years. Maybe someone will make embedded Linux based brain implants or something.


  3. John Dallman

    Platforms and Windows and Linux

    Well, it's a bit more complicated than that... Porting stuff - applications rather than OS - is what I do for a living, and I've been watching processors go by for a while, and taking notes.

    People forget nowadays that Windows NT started life on the Intel i860 (Huh? went the chorus), with MIPS as its second platform, and shipped as a four-platform CD for x86, DEC Alpha, MIPS and PowerPC. And all of those platforms except x86 died. The basic reason was that x86 became the fastest, and Windows' requirements grew fast enough that using anything except the fastest became silly. XP is Windows NT version 5.1; Vista is version 6.0. Windows 9x was throughly non-portable, but it's dead.

    The world is now down to just two architectures that are performance-competitive and potentially mass-market: x86 and PowerPC. IBM weren't interested in doing PowerPC laptop chips, so Apple switched to x86. That's the vast mass of Linux systems, too. Itanium is on the way out: it never really took off.

    So what platforms does Linux actually have a competitive advantage on? Embedded systems, micro-portables, and the like. The issue there isn't that Windows couldn't be ported to their CPU architectures, it's that it takes too much CPU power and memory, and thereby wattage, to be a cost-effective choice. Even Windows CE, which ran on many platforms quite recently, even if it is mostly ARM now, needs a chunkier system than a stripped-down Linux, or other embedded OS. That's the killer. Not portability, as such.

  4. Michael Sheils


    Only one more year left until the kernel starts drinking, forgetting where it left stuff and dying of liver failure before 30?

  5. vincent himpe

    stopping a port

    try porting it to a 4004 or 8080 .

  6. Christopher O'Neill

    Linux is part of a bigger picture

    I think phrases such as "Linux on the desktop" are a bit misleading, Linux is just a kernel. There are other projects that are equal if not bigger in size/importance to Linux and they deserve a mention too - GNU, Gnome and QT/KDE for instance - where would Linux be without these? Still stuck in 1995 I guess.

  7. Andrew B

    Oh my

    "[...] Hurd will be out in a year (or two, or next month, who knows) [...]"

    Or maybe not...

  8. BlueGreen

    "...with Linux on the desktop getting to be more practical with every passing year..."


    Just spent some time with Centos and Gnome and they aren't ready. Spent a *day* trying to get VMware installed. It needed to recompile so I had to 1) get the right headers 2) point out where it and other bits were 3) get GCC as well 4) install Xinetd (had to do this when it claimed to have installed fully, but still didn't work). That's the simple story, it was actually worse. I also tried installing VirtualBox - just could not get it running.

    With windows, just download and install. I know that this 'weakness' of linux is a strength in other ways, but not to a casual user.

    On another front, Gnome is a poor UI. It doesn't even seem to have much fundamental recognition of user interface principles - frankly it's not nice. There's a lot of other things wrong, such as me having to re-enable the NIC each time I rebooted it. Loads of little things like that.

    Documentation is negligable.

    On the plus side, I still liked it lots and it was very, very stable. I would probably have stuck with it but for graphics driver problems - had them for win, not supplied for centos (Probably not hard to fix for vendor, but they're not interested right now).

    Oh well, flame me, you know you must.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Part of the problem not the solution

    Cross proessor architecture is pretty meaningless these days when all the processor architecures are so simillar. Flat byte addressed address space is pretty much wired into the assumptions behind Linux (and Windows for that atter). A vision stuck in the 1980s in many ways (or earlier).

    Where are the interesting operating systems closely coupled with a new architexture? Different security modells hard wired into the processor? Different multiprocessing models? Linux's use in education stifiles new ideas: too many people are being taught an architecure designed in the 70s, slightly reworked in the 80s as if it were the only way - or worse as if it is the state of the art.

  10. Mike Lovell

    @Rob Beard

    "well, maybe not just yet but it's pretty much there once she learns how to turn the computer on!"

    She already knows how to turn me on Rob

  11. Chris Matchett
    Dead Vulture

    Fawn some moare

    Hardly a balanced perspective was it?

  12. Doug Bostrom

    Is replacement inevitable?

    Is it really a given that Linux will die a slow death as a legacy platform?

    Viewed as a linguistic problem, operating systems have undergone a lightning evolution, but there's no certainty that we'll continue to find reasons to reinvent what has already proven to work and to track evolving demands. The English language has never been displaced--- to be replaced by a whole-cloth reimplementation-- but instead has seamlessly morphed to support changing requirements.

    Perhaps we'll instead see a continuing shift of operating systems to an evolutionary approach, a speculation that Linux seems to support. Windows also attempts to evolve, but its private ownership seems a hindrance rather than an advantage. Pushing the concept maybe a little too far, If English were owned by a private entity it's doubtful it would have seen such wide adoption or longevity.

  13. James Butler
    Thumb Up

    Conditions are right...

    With what looks to be a global depression waiting in the wings, perhaps Linux' time to shine will come sooner, rather than later. Can't ask for a better birthday present than that.

  14. Andy Taylor

    Benedict IX

    Was Pope 3 times in the 11th Century, not sure if that makes it a better name than Linux.

  15. Colin Wilson

    Knighthood ?

    I can't remember if Linus has had one, but if not, perhaps it's about time he was given a knighthood in the UK for services to the community - both domestic and commercial.

    Mine's the one with xubuntu in the pocket, the laptop, and the desktop - only one machine in the house doesn't have windows on it now, and as soon as I convince the missus... :-)

  16. MarkJ

    Operations per watt

    The rather trite IBM commercial aside, if you drive up the cost per watt of computing power, eventually people will want to make energy savings. That's where Linux ought to win the next chunk of market share. Somehow I doubt Macrosoft can compete, unless they bring out versions of Server 2010 (or whatever) specifically designed to run whatever server app the box is hosting.

  17. Jean-Luc Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Joyeux anniversaire

    RMS can rotate in his mausoleum allright:

    "Hurd will be out in a year (or two, or next month, who knows)"

    Seriously, it is amazing how advanced Linux software installation and patching schemes like apt-get are heads and shoulders above Windows' turd-bath of individual vendor-provided patching agents. And Linux pgm installations used to be a big weakness.

    Now if we could just get a bit of free-vs-proprietary pragmatism, more polite fanboys, easier configuration (rather than installation) and better games on it, it would be the best thing ever.

    P.S. I wouldn't load up on M$ stock just now.

  18. What's in a name?


    How old is RMS?

  19. Renny McGregor

    Reflex laugh

    "particularly small and medium businesses that adopt Windows reflectively."

    Precisely opposite :-)

  20. Andrew Wigglesworth

    Linux operating system?

    GNU is an operating system, Linux is one of the kernels it uses.

  21. Andrew Wigglesworth
    Thumb Up

    GNU link for the ignorant.

  22. Anonymous Coward

    had to work on a solaris box today....

    for the first time in a while.... nothing quite like a day with CDE to remind me how much i love linux.

  23. J


    Hm, sound like a version of the Pope's name for that famous French cartoon... No, I guess I'll stick to Linux, ta very much.

    By the way, to repeat myself, I refuse to use this Playmobil version of the Tux icon.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @ What no GNU?

    Why the joke alert ?

    The Linux kernel is the heart, but the rest of it keeps it alive.

    Comparing Windows to Linux is like comparing a car to an engine.

    You could say the Linux ecosystem if you were going to be anal, but GNU do deserve some credit, as do the GPL.

  25. Martin Silver badge

    Remember SLS and 32 floppies?

    Type your comment here — plain text only, no HTML

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Banking and Sparcing

    Amusingly, a twenty-ish techy type at my wife's employer --- a retail bank --- started talking about the benefits of open source to a somewhat bemused audience of risk managers today. My wife decided that was not the moment to point out that when said techy was busy being born RMS was sleeping in our spare room.

    The Solaris port to PPC was completed and released: 2.5.1 was available in little-endian form for PReP platforms. I don't have any running (or indeed runnable) 2.5.1 machines to hand, but the manual pages were full of references. Some engineering continued into 2.6, and I think there are references in the manual pages for that as well. You can read the story at

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    17 years?

    IIRC Windows v1 was released in 1985, which means after 17 years (in 2002) it was already at the total domination Windows 2000/XP stage. Having trounced Apple, Netware, OS/2 NeXT and all the other OSes of the day. Linux is a stillborn toy of the geek and MS hater and is unlikely to ever realistically be anything more.

    As for platform support; really people are only interested in Intel/AMD based PCs. Sure you can run it on an iPod or your PS2 or your watch, but why on God's Green Earth would anyone who has ever had sex with more than just themselves present want to?

  28. Homard
    Dead Vulture


    I too love our Penguin friend. It and all the Open Source software I use has taught me much, and taught me well. Thanks to all involved for that !

    I too remember my first Linux install - R/H 5.something. Real pain in the backside to install. But it was worth the effort, and I've never looked back. Now, as you say, the installers are much easier to use, and don't do your head in like frequent reboots as seen on another computing platform.

    Now if brain implants were penguin, I would surely be looking at an increase in uptime ? Would someone be able to exhume my remains in say 300 years time, and know my thoughts ? I can see it now : who was 'that smeg head gordon brown' ?

    Sorry Reg ! I love your site. I couldn't put another penguin icon in succession ... so I chose the one that is nearly the same shape ... the reg one ... I'll be back - honest !

  29. Anonymous Coward

    PCW CD?

    Heck, I remember when a roommate brought 50 floppies in from work (NASA) and installed it on a spare PC. There wasn't any distros at all. We used VT-100s instead of multiple PCs because it didn't have networking yet.

    Anyway, proprietary UNIX died because each vendor wanted to be "different" and distinguish itself from competitors somehow, which usually meant making it incompatible in some way, which is the exact opposite of what you want technically.

    It's funny, originally Linus didn't care about cross-porting and warned that it would never run on anything on x86. DEC donated an Alpha and Linus couldn't turn down a technical challenge.

    One of the reasons it succeeds where BSD doesn't is that Linus thinks "world domination" is a joke, and he doesn't care about "market share" but just about users getting shit done. BSD is so uptight and neurotic that it's fragmented into it's own little bunch of infighting pieces.

  30. Richard


    You were compiling a closed source program? Yeah right ...

    From my Fedora machine, I just select one of 3,000 applications from the menu, wait a few seconds, and it's installed. They're all open source apps, integrated properly into the system.

  31. Joseph Helenihi

    Rise of the Machines

    "The beauty of Linux is this: You can't stop a port to a new architecture, even if you wanted to."

    So, if I port it into a T-101 that becomes self-aware because of the advanced nature of the chipset and the inherent adaptability of open source code, is such "port"-ability a *good* or *bad* thing?

    <Lab coat with the Cyberdyne logo, thanks>

  32. Anonymous Coward

    Breaking out the popcorn

    And waiting for the inevitable flame war that will explode between the various factions... Linux/GNU geeks on one side and wintards on the other. Should be fun to watch.

    BTW Happy B-Day tux :-).

  33. Joe Zeff

    When will the Hurd be here?

    The Hurd will come thundering through just as soon as they're done porting Duke Nukem Forever to their kernel.

  34. Benny


    "Oh no, you won't!" the biggest goat shouted and he lowered his horns and charged at the troll.

    Smack! He butted him right over the bridge....

  35. IGnatius T Foobar

    Linux is *the* OS for the future

    The forces of commoditization are, inevitably, irresistable. Linux *will* eventually become the predominant operating system everywhere, it's merely a question of when. It could take a few years or it could take decades.

    And the fact that it's open source will mean that it will evolve and constantly be updated as generation after generation of technology greets us. To paraphrase a famous computer scientist, "I don't know what kind of operating system I'll be using 30 years from now, but I know it'll be called Linux."

    Oh, and to all the GNU/Linux nomenclature police: get over yourselves.

  36. Steen Hive


    The joke was the "dead RMS" part. The fact that the OS is GNU and linux is the kernel wasn't.

    Not withstanding that the bearded one will have a heart-attack if he reads this article :-)

    For those slagging the Hurd, it's a rather nifty OS, but it progresses on geological timescales. If the same effort had been put into GNUMach as into the linux kernel, who knows where it would be now.

    And yeah MACH kernels can be beaten over the head to run an fully-fledged OS - Jobsy-boy proved it with XNU.

  37. Ed Deckard

    @ Doug Bostrom

    "The English language has never been displaced--- to be replaced by a whole-cloth reimplementation-- but instead has seamlessly morphed to support changing requirements."

    You got the wrong end here by picking a living language for your example. English has replaced a huge number of other languages, and presumably may be replaced itself at some point.

  38. Webster Phreaky
    Jobs Horns

    What a LAUGH! "promised to be"? What? 1% of the OS Market???

    Bwah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ....

    This "writer" (to call him a journalist is another laugh) is delusional (he should buy a Mac, he'd fit in there too).

    Windows 94% of the worlds Desktop OS Market in use.

    Mac OS 4%

    Linux <1%

    Misc. 1%

    (per Gartner Research 2007)

  39. Brian Whittle

    Yes But

    If you are a geek or have a geek to look after your computer Linux is fine if you are not the only rational courses are windows or OSX

    google any piece of hardware and you will come across loads of results orf people asking foe linux drivers

  40. Colin Wilson

    Damn the typo...

    "Mine's the one with xubuntu in the pocket, the laptop, and the desktop - only one machine in the house doesn't have windows on it now, and as soon as I convince the missus... :-)"

    Spot the obvious :-} - should read "only one machine still has windows on it now" (as its' primary OS at any rate)

  41. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    When it can be used

    as a real replacement to Windows, I'm there with bells on. Right now, it has gone a LONG way in the last few years. Very far way.

    But basic problems like simple lib incompatibilities, hard-to-decipher install instructions, apps that are community supported (where the community ignores you if you can't recompile "module xyz using lib ver 8.9.x") - these are hindering the uptake heavily.

    Right now even Vista is smoother to use for a novice.. and that's a huge shame.

  42. Nic Brough


    I won't flame you for saying it's not ready for the desktop - some users do experience problems like the ones you have seen. However. my experience is different. I'm a tecchy, so my personal experience is irrelevant. but I've now converted 9 people from Windows to Linux desktops by simply giving them an install CD. None of them were tecchies, none of them needed any help.

    Five years ago, Linux was not ready for the desktop. Now, it is totally ready, with a simple caveat of "get the right one for your user". This actually applies to Windows to, but there is only one answer - XP. For Linux, there is more choice, but for most (Western, non-tecchy, ex-Windows) users Kubuntu is the answer. I would say Ubuntu, but I agree with you about the Gnome UI, despite my own personal preference for it, for most people, it's simply bad.

    I've been using Unix since 198<mutter>, and Linux was a delight to see when it first arrived. It's grown and I've grown with it. I'm glad I've gone grey faster than Tux though!

  43. This post has been deleted by its author

  44. Solomon Grundy

    Have I Done Something Wrong?

    Almost 2/3's of my comments this week have been censored? The comments, content, and character of my observations haven't changed, so why aren't you posting them?

    I'm just curious. I'll still visit El Reg if you've decided to cut me off, but I think it's fucked up because people seem to like me; or at least get excited about what I say.

  45. Anonymous Coward

    who have you been having sex with ?

    ...anyone who has ever had sex with more than just themselves...

    who have you been having sex with ? Steve Ballmer ?

    Anyone whose brain is not soft from sucking Microsoft di..., or who uses their computer for something besides Office drone, or playing video games, or viewing porn likes linux. Hell, even the porn viewers like linux, makes them more resistant to all the spyware the porn pushers embed in their wares.

    How about: "linux, like a mac, except for heterosexuals" ?

  46. BlueGreen

    @Richard, @Nic Brough

    @Richard - "You were compiling a closed source program? Yeah right ..."

    Tell ya what, why don't you try it (on centos, like me)? Note the bit where it asks for location of the headers matching the kernal, and then asks where gcc lives. I think it's the latter that really gave it away. I don't suppose it's compiling (oops, that word again) the lot, possibly just interface stuff. I dunno. FYI VirtualBox wanted GCC too.

    @Nic Brough - I wasn't clear, I have been converted but I need a few win progs too much! And I'm a techie I suppose, except a noob at *nix. I hope to use a spare machine as a firewall (iptables/netfilter) but I've a leeeedle way to go. Thanks for your informative comments.

  47. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    @solomon grundy

    Neither is the case boy-o. Point and laugh yes, like or get excited by. Not in the least.

  48. Solomon Grundy


    You're a geek. I hope you're not stuck in your mom's basement and imagining what a real vagina looks like.

  49. Pheet

    @webster (Windows share aprox. 16%)

    Read, then shut the fuck up. Permanently.

    I've not even going to bother pointing out that if desktop PCs came without a certain OS already preinstalled then the story would be different.

    And for the record, I'm a FreeBSD fanboy :-)

    Belated brithday wishes for GNU/Linux.

  50. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Happy Birthday Tux

    Odd article, draws some weird conclusions, doesn't seem to understand that Linux is the kernel, not the OS, which in this case is kinda important.

    Also doesn't seem to understand the huge contribution BSD has made and continues to make to opensource. Frankly the good stuff you see tends to be BSD inspired.

    It also seems to think that the GPL is some darling for business, it is not, it is designed for life stylers who want to make sure people share with them, it is not designed to create competitive edge or run businesses it is designed to allow people to push boundaries in a group.

    Gartner figures from one poster, please get a clue, those figures are way off base and frankly I don't know how anyone could conduct an accurate study on determining the figures. If it is on sales well of course Windows would be high, not many Linux distros get sold nowadays.


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