9.1 The Establishment Begins to Notice

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By the mid-1990s, the operating system had already developed quite a following. In 1994, Jon Hall was a programmer for Digital, a company that was later bought by Compaq. Hall also wears a full beard and uses the name "maddog" as a nickname. At that time, Digital made workstations that ran a version of UNIX. In the early 1990s, Digital made a big leap forward by creating a 64-bit processor version of its workstation CPU chip, the Alpha, and the company wanted to make sure that the chip found widespread acceptance.
Hall remembers well the moment he discovered Linux. He told Linux Today,


I didn't even know I was involved with Linux at first. I got a copy of Dr. Dobb's Journal, and in there was an advertisement for "get a UNIX operating system, all the source code, and run it on your PC." And I think it was $99. And I go, "Oh, wow, that's pretty cool. For $99, I can do that." So I sent away for it, got the CD. The only trouble was that I didn't have a PC to run it on. So I put it on my Ultrix system, took a look at the main pages, directory structure and stuff, and said, "Hey, that looks pretty cool." Then I put it away in the filing cabinet. That was probably around January of 1994.


In May 1994, Hall met Torvalds at a DECUS (Digital Equipment Corporation User Society) meeting and became a big fan. Hall is a programmer's programmer who has written code for many different machines over the years, like the IBM 1130 and the DEC PDP-8. He started out as an electrical engineer in college, but took up writing software "after seeing a friend of mine fried by 13,600 volts and 400 amps, which was not a pretty sight." Hall started playing with UNIX when he worked at Bell Labs and fell in love with the OS.
At the meeting, Torvalds helped Hall and his boss set up a PC with Linux. This was the first time that Hall actually saw Linux run, and he was pleasantly surprised. He said, "By that time I had been using UNIX for probably about fifteen years. I had used System V, I had used Berkeley, and all sorts of stuff, and this really felt like UNIX. You know. .. I mean, it's kind of like playing the piano. You can play the piano, even if it's a crappy piano. But when it's a really good piano, your fingers just fly over the keys. That's the way this felt. It felt good, and I was really impressed."


This experience turned Hall into a true convert and he went back to Digital convinced that the Linux project was more than just some kids playing with a toy OS. These so-called amateurs with no centralized system or corporate backing had produced a very, very impressive system that was almost as good as the big commercial systems. Hall was an instant devotee. Many involved in the project recall their day of conversion with the same strength. A bolt of lightning peeled the haze away from their eyes, and they saw.
Hall set out trying to get Torvalds to rewrite Linux so it would work well on the Alpha. This was not a simple task, but it was one that helped the operating system grow a bit more. The original version included some software that assumed the computer was designed like the Intel 386. This was fine when Linux only ran on Intel machines, but removing these assumptions made it possible for the software to run well on all types of machines.


Hall went sailing with Torvalds to talk about the guts of the Linux OS. Hall told me, "I took him out on the Mississippi River, went up and down the Mississippi in the river boat, drinking Hurricanes, and I said to him, 'Linus, did you ever think about porting Linux to a 64-bit processor, like the Alpha?' He said, 'Well, I thought about doing that, but the Helsinki office has been having problems getting me a system, so I guess I'll have to do the PowerPC instead.'


"I knew that was the wrong answer, so I came back to Digital (at the time), and got a friend of mine, named Bill Jackson, to send out a system to Linus, and he received it about a couple weeks after that. Then I found some people inside Digital who were also thinking about porting Linux to an Alpha. I got the two groups together, and after that, we started on the Alpha Linux project."


This was one of the first times that a major corporation started taking note of what was happening in the garages and basements of hardcore computer programmers. It was also one of the first times that a corporation looked at an open source operating system and did not react with fear or shock. Sun was always a big contributor of open source software, but they kept their OS proprietary. Hall worked tirelessly at Digital to ensure that the corporation understood the implications of the GPL and saw that it was a good way to get more interested in the Alpha chip. He says he taught upper management at Digital how to "say the L-word."


Hall also helped start a group called Linux International, which works to make the corporate world safe for Linux. "We help vendors understand the Linux marketplace," Hall told me. "There's a lot of confusion about what the GPL means. Less now, but still there's a lot of confusion. We helped them find the markets."
Today, Linux International helps control the trademark on the name Linux and ensures that it is used in an open way. "When someone wanted to call themselves something like 'Linux University,' we said that's bad because there's going to be more than one. 'Linux University of North Carolina' is okay. It opens up the space."


In the beginning, Torvalds depended heavily on the kindness of strangers like Hall. He didn't have much money, and the Linux project wasn't generating a huge salary for him. Of course, poverty also made it easier for people like Hall to justify giving him a machine. Torvalds wasn't rich monetarily, but he became rich in machines.


By 1994, when Hall met Torvalds, Linux was already far from just a one-man science project. The floppy disks and CD-ROMs holding a version of the OS were already on the market, and this distribution mechanism was one of the crucial unifying forces. Someone could just plunk down a few dollars and get a version that was more or less ready to run. Many simply downloaded their versions for free from the Internet.