Twenty years ago last Friday, a University of Helsinki student announced a software project he had started in his digs. Today, given you’re reading this, you’re using his creation.
By Christopher Williams, Technology Correspondent
8:00AM BST 28 Aug 2011
Linus Torvalds’ announced his plan on a bulletin board with no idea of the force he would unleash.
“I’m doing a (free) operating system,” he told his coding peers.
“Just a hobby,” he explained.
Crucially, anyone could contribute, and the software would be given away.
Linux, the operating system that grew out of Linus Torvalds’ “hobby”, now runs the majority of the world’s web servers, including those (CDN networks) that deliver The Telegraph website.
For many of the last 20 years, Linux devotees, including some of the thousands of software developers who have contributed to its open source code, spent a lot of time and energy attacking Microsoft, and its dominant Windows operating system. They fought to loosen Bill Gates’ grip on the world’s desktops, and failed.
That was tacitly confirmed earlier this month when Microsoft filed its annual report with government regulators. The firm felt able to remove references to Linux from its boilerplate statement on Windows’ competitors.
As it turns out though, Linux fans needn’t have bothered. It may have lost that battle, but it’s winning the war.
Today, it is Linux quietly powering growth in what are arguably the two most important areas of computing: the web and mobile.
Cheap, reliable and relatively secure, Linux runs the world’s biggest websites including Amazon, Facebook and Google. When you visit them, your (probably) Windows home computer is talking to a Linux machine.
It’s unglamourous below stairs work, but the modern web, with all its seemingly free bounty, wouldn‘t work without it.
Linux’s burgeoning role in the smartphone market is perhaps more widely-known outside IT circles. Google’s Android, now the world’s best-selling smartphone operating system, is a version of Linux.
Microsoft may retain its monopoly on desktops, with Apple its most credible challenger in that unfashionable sphere, but it would now surely trade some of that dominance for Linux’s success in the booming smartphone market. Windows Phone 7 has barely made an impression yet.
Of course, Android has benefited from Google’s advertising billions, which have enabled the firm to finesse it to consumer standard and still give it away to smartphone manufacturers. There are also tensions between Google and the open source devotees who criticise the firm for not sharing some of its innovations with the open source community.
But Android is a remarkable achievement for Linux and double-guarantees its future, given the upward trajectory of mobile computing.
Even for those who don’t use the web much, and don’t have a smartphone, after 20 years Linux is nevertheless inescapable. Various versions of it are being embedded in cars, planes, stock exchanges, smart electricity meters, televisions, games consoles, cash machines and more. And it’s barely out of adolescence.