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Remembering the Future

Doc Searls

Issue #200, December 2010

Keeping Linux promising since 1994.

In 1993, Phil Hughes pulled together a short e-mail list to discuss the idea of starting a free software magazine. As soon as Phil got the rest of us (especially me) up to speed on the subject, he changed it. Instead of writing about free software, he now wanted to write about a new UNIX-y operating system by some kid from Finland. The general reaction on the list was, “What?” But Phil had his mind made up, and when Phil does that, there isn't any undoing it.

What Phil saw with Linux was more than just a cool new operating system. He saw a path to freedom for UNIX, and the eventual use of free and open software and hardware by pretty much everybody. He was right, and that's one reason we are now at issue 200 of Linux Journal.

Looking forward is a stock in trade of technology magazines, but at Linux Journal, we've gone to extremes from the start. (Hard not to, given the inborn promise of Linux and the constantly growing spread of its uses.) For example, in issue #2 (April–May 1994, www.linuxjournal.com/issue/2), Phil's From the Editor was a column he might post in January 2000. Here is some of what he saw—and how close he was to being right:

1) “Linux and an Internet connection in over 100 million homes worldwide.”

Linux already was on its way to becoming the embedded OS of choice for countless Net-connected devices, and that last number was actually low.

2) “90% of our subscribers are now via the Internet rather than on paper.”

Readers, for sure. Subscribers, not yet.

3) “Seamless ISDN connections” between the magazine's own far-flung internal systems.

Wrong on ISDN, but right on the connections, which matter far more.

4) “Formation of MoAmI Semiconductor from Motorola, AMD and Intel engineers in 1994”—on whose 32- and 64-bit systems Linux would run.

Right in the sense that one standard would emerge and Linux would run on it.

5) “Linux became the most popular operating system used in computer science classes in 1995. This meant that the pool of available talent in the Linux market was huge.”

Close enough with the former, and more than true with the latter.

6) Novell's purchase of USL in 1993 made Windows NT “the niche operating system”.

Well, one could make the case for the long-term niche-ing of Windows OSes.

7) “Likewise, the decision of many fence-sitting vendors to go with Linux gave it the needed push that caused it to become a mainstream system.”

For sure, most notably with IBM.

8) For larger vendors, “Going to Linux as their operating system both reduced their software development costs and made it easier for them to find pre-trained systems programmers for the software work they still needed to perform.”


9) Telephone directories are “free and much easier to use than a traditional phone book”, which “caused more people to elect for an Internet connection...”

We call this Google.

10) “Old Linux activists and developers” are “still writing code or books”, but “we don't see any who are CEOs of multi-billion dollar corporations”.

Ask Bob Young. Before he founded Red Hat, Bob was the first editor of Linux Journal.

11) “Linux machines make up the majority of the machines connected to the Internet.”

This is still off in the future, although Android looks promising for smartphones and handhelds. More important is what's happening to the Internet itself, as it divides into a vast collection of apps and services, many of them silo'd to privately managed platforms (for example, Apple's i-Everything and Amazon's Kindle). Even Android's success is compromised by all-proprietary 3G, 4G and LTE wireless data networks that continue leveraging ancient phone-company billing models, which include punishing costs for “roaming” across national boundaries. There also remains an absence of Internet access in much of the world. All these challenges keep relevant Phil's closing words in 1994:

We need to offer Internet connectivity to everyone....In 1990 people were much less likely to know the names of their neighbors or world leaders than the names of fictitious characters on TV shows. Although Internet connectivity may not help people get to know their physical neighbors, it does help them build a community of electronic neighbors. Using the Internet is active, not passive. Whether people elect to do research or electronically talk to another person, they are now making real choices and possibly talking to real people.

Because Linux was so significant in getting tens of millions of people connected to the Internet in the past five years, and Linux machines make up the majority of the machines connected to the Internet today, I see this as a project that the Linux community should take on. In 1993 and 1994 we were all out there telling people about Linux. If today we all walked next door, introduced ourselves to those neighbors that have lived there since 1990 and then offered to help them get connected to the Internet, we could claim another huge victory for the Linux progressive movement before year's end.

This is still our job. Only now our neighbors are everywhere.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at UC Santa Barbara.

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