9. Growth

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Through the 1990s, the little toy operating system grew slowly and quietly as more and more programmers were drawn into the vortex. At the beginning, the OS wasn't rich with features. You could run several different programs at once, but you couldn't do much with the programs. The system's interface was just text. Still, this was often good enough for a few folks in labs around the world. Some just enjoyed playing with computers. Getting Linux running on their PC was a challenge, not unlike bolting an aftermarket supercharger onto a Honda Civic. But others took the project more seriously because they had serious jobs that couldn't be solved with a proprietary operating system that came from Microsoft or others.

In time, more people started using the system and started contributing their additions to the pot. Someone figured out how to make MIT's free X Window System run on Linux so everyone could have a graphical interface. Someone else discovered how to roll in technology for interfacing with the Internet. That made a big difference because everyone could hack, tweak, and fiddle with the code and then just upload the new versions to the Net.

It goes without saying that all the cool software coming out of Stallman's Free Software Foundation found its way to Linux. Some were simple toys like GNU Chess, but others were serious tools that were essential to the growth of the project. By 1991, the FSF was offering what might be argued were the best text editor and compiler in the world. Others might have been close, but Stallman's were free. These were crucial tools that made it possible for Linux to grow quickly from a tiny experimental kernel into a full-featured OS for doing everything a programmer might want to do.

James Lewis-Moss, one of the many programmers who devote some time to Linux, says that GCC made it possible for programmers to create, revise, and extend the kernel. "GCC is integral to the success of Linux," he says, and points out that this may be one of the most important reasons why "it's polite to refer to it as GNU/Linux."

Lewis-Moss points out one of the smoldering controversies in the world of free software: all of the tools and games that came from the GNU project started becoming part of what people simply thought of as plain "Linux." The name for the small kernel of the operating system soon grew to apply to almost all the free software that ran with it. This angered Stallman, who first argued that a better name would be"Lignux."When that failed to take hold, he moved to "GNU/Linux." Some ignored his pleas and simply used "Linux," which is still a bit unfair. Some feel that"GNU/Linux"is too much of a mouthful and, for better or worse, just plain Linux is an appropriate shortcut. Some, like Lewis-Moss, hold firm to GNU/Linux.

Soon some people were bundling together CD-ROMs with all this software in one batch. The group would try to work out as many glitches as possible so that the purchaser's life would be easier. All boasted strange names like Yggdrasil, Slackware, SuSE, Debian, or Red Hat. Many were just garage projects that never made much money, but that was okay. Making money wasn't really the point. People just wanted to play with the source. Plus, few thought that much money could be made. The GPL, for instance, made it difficult to differentiate the product because it required everyone to share their source code with the world. If Slackware came up with a neat fix that made their version of Linux better, then Debian and SuSE could grab it. The GPL prevented anyone from constraining the growth of Linux.

But only greedy businessmen see sharing and competition as negatives. In practice, the free flow of information enhanced the market for Linux by ensuring that it was stable and freely available. If one key CDROM developer gets a new girlfriend and stops spending enough time programming, another distribution will pick up the slack. If a hurricane flattened Raleigh, North Carolina, the home of Red Hat, then another supplier would still be around. A proprietary OS like Windows is like a set of manacles. An earthquake in Redmond, Washington, could cause a serious disruption for everyone.

The competition and the GPL meant that the users would never feel bound to one OS. If problems arose, anyone could always just start a splinter group and take Linux in that direction. And they did. All the major systems began as splinter groups, and some picked up enough steam and energy to dominate. In time, the best splinter groups spun off their own splinter groups and the process grew terribly complicated.