Linux on the Scene (Wikipedia)

The project that did fulfill the goal is now legend—Linux. Started by Finnish hacker Linus Torvalds as a free software project, it grew quickly and gathered volunteers from all over the world, inspired by Stallman’s vision for copying, inspecting, and improving software. It all began quite humbly when Torvalds started testing a small, basic operating system called Minix. A computer’s operating system acts as the traffic cop to all the hardware resources such as the disk drive, keyboard, graphical display, and networking. All other computer software relies on this "kernel" of the operating system.

Minix was the creation of a computer science professor and was often used in teaching computer science to students. The miniature operating system captured the attention of Linus Torvalds. The free, open source Minix could run on any common Intel microprocessor-based computer that normally ran Microsoft Windows. Minix was small, but that didn’t mean it was weak. In its kernel of basic computer code it had all the necessary fundamentals to build bigger and better things. It could easily be loaded onto a floppy disk, and best of all, because it was free, people could inspect the computer code, modify it, and extend its capabilities.

Torvalds learned a lot from "hacking" Minix in his spare time to make it do more. As he improved it, he wondered, like most hackers at the time, why not put the improvements on the Internet to share? So he put them on a computer server and invited people to see his work. Then a curious thing happened. People downloaded his changes, tried them out, fixed some of his errors and bugs, and improved his code. But most importantly, they sent the new code and bug fixes back to him.

He would collect people’s contributions, consolidate them, and release another new and improved version for others to download, often within days. In turn, more corrections and improvements were developed and sent back to Linus. Suddenly a critical mass from this process had gathered, and more and more revisions came out in what became a virtuous cycle. Linus didn’t author all the improvements; he simply served as the master integrator for this new community of enthusiasts, and the project took on a life of its own.

In contrast to the demanding, controlling, and confrontational Stallman, Torvalds was fascinated by how many folks were pitching in and sending corrections and additions to his computer code. And though he had the ultimate say for these changes being released in his Linux package, he tried to be as inclusive as possible.

Torvalds’s mellow and humble style came to codify a tradition in online collaborative projects—that of benevolent dictator. He inspired the project with direction, respected the community of helpers, and exercised authority to solve disputes only when absolutely necessary. His easygoing style and accessibility were essential to the project’s success and also set a humble tone for others.

It’s important to note that Linux and Stallman’s GNU project were not adversarial. In fact, Linux is only one small part of the kernel, the bare essentials necessary for a computer run. The GNU system Stallman created had lots of small computer programs called utilities, which were free through copyleft license. They were modified to run with Linux to create a fully functioning system. In that sense, Stallman has always been insistent that what is commonly known as Linux today should correctly be referred to as GNU/Linux—a hybrid of two systems that work together.

As this GNU/Linux combination started to rise in quality, it also started to challenge the commercial industry heavyweights—Sun, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, and others who sold "closed source" operating systems for hundreds or thousands of dollars. Linux wasn’t just a free (as in beer) alternative; it was actually a favorite with hard-core programmers because individuals or businesses could take Linux apart and add new functionality, something they could not do very easily with commercial operating systems.

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