In August 1991, Linus Torvalds, then a 21-year-old student in Finland, posted a message for computer geeks: “I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu)... This is starting to get ready.” This modest beginning of Linux is disproportionate to the silent revolution it delivered for the growth of open source and free software movement in a quarter century.

Today, the most visible Linux devices are smartphones; nearly 82 per cent of them are powered by Android, based on Linux. Except in the personal desktops segment, Linux is the dominant OS for supercomputers, servers, popular gaming consoles and even smart televisions.

A free world

Torvalds had designed the OS as part of his graduate thesis and made it available for free. As a student, I started using Linux-based systems for scientific computations since mid-1990s. The commercial desktop operating systems then would cost at least a few hundred dollars. In this backdrop, the idea of a free operating system was liberating especially when research budgets were constrained and did not fully recognise computers as part of scientific research tools.

For computer enthusiasts worldwide, the freedom to use, modify and re-distribute the software was so attractive that they began coordinated efforts to improve Linux. Today, this would be called crowdsourcing. Even before Torvalds’ free Linux hit the computers, Richard Stallman in the US was already campaigning along similar lines. Stallman had created the Free Software Foundation in 1983 as a reaction to increasing restrictions on the use of proprietary software in 1970-80s.

By 1990, Stallman had created a whole suite of free software such as editors, compilers and device drivers, many of which are used even today. But the missing component was a working piece of operating system kernel, essential to boot up a computer and start working. It is precisely this missing piece that Torvalds provided in 1991. When combined with Stallman’s free software, an entire desktop computer could run with free software. The changes were phenomenal. This movement has grown so strong today that for every commercial software a free and open source version with similar functionality is available. Open source lets others innovate the code as well.

Those many Linuxes

In the last 25 years, Linux kernel has grown too. The latest version released this year has nearly 21 million lines of source code up from about ten thousand in 1991. According to a 2015 Linux Foundation Report, 12,000 programmers and many technology companies worldwide have contributed towards this effort. Today, Linux OS is a multi-headed hydra with many variants, some of which have become commercially successful by providing support and integration services though the Linux software is free.

In spite of such contributions to humanity towards making digital world affordable to all, linux is not familiar among the general public. Yet, most of the search engines, email services and mobile phones we use are powered by linux OS. As modest as its beginning was in 1991, it continues to work silently behind the scenes. As Stallman once said, “Our movement has much in common with Gandhi’s; both are movements for freedom and to end a form of oppression”.

The writer is a physicist and is an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune