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Linux is the most widely-used free and open source operating system in the world. Unlike commercial alternatives, no single person or company can take credit. Linux is what it is due to the ideas and contributions of many individuals from all over the world.

Here are some of the big names behind Linux and the ethical movements that have caused it to spread far and wide. This list by no means includes all of the people whose work has made the free desktop what it is. Instead, these are the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of the Linux world, figures who founded many of the projects and organizations we now depend on.

Let’s start from the beginning.

Richard Stallman

In 1983, Richard Stallman started the GNU Project. This initiative sought to create a non-proprietary Unix-compatible operating system and is responsible for many of the programs we use today.

Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation a couple years later and went on to become the most prominent face of the free software movement. He didn’t create the concept of free software, but he provided a clear philosophical and practical framework.

Stallman defined free software as software that users are free to run, copy, distribute, study, change, and improve. His cause was ethical. Placing restrictions on software was attacking a person’s freedom.

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Stallman wrote the GNU Public License Open Source Software Licenses: Which Should You Use? Open Source Software Licenses: Which Should You Use? Did you know that not all open source licenses are the same? Read More , which prevents using free software code to create proprietary code. This is part of the reason why so much Linux software, including the kernel itself, remains free decades later.

  • Another name to remember: John Sullivan, Executive Director of the Free Software Foundation.

Linus Torvalds

Linus Torvalds is the creator of the Linux, a project he began while a student at the University of Helsinki. The GNU Project had provided most of what was needed to run a free desktop, but an essential piece was missing: the kernel. This was the part needed for software to communicate with hardware.

The GNU Project’s attempt at a kernel, the Hurd, was not yet ready, and a different option called MINIX was only licensed for educational use. This left Torvalds motivated enough to create his own. He started Linux in 1991.

The Linux kernel has little to do with what you see when running a Linux-based operating system. Most of what’s visible has more to do with contributions from the GNU Project. Nonetheless, people started referring to the entire free desktop operating system as Linux Why Hardly Anyone Calls Linux "GNU/Linux" Why Hardly Anyone Calls Linux "GNU/Linux" You're interested in Linux and have read a few blog posts. Along the way, you've come across a funny name: GNU/Linux. But what does this mean? Read More since it was the component that enabled them to finally use their PCs with free software.

  • Another name to remember: Greg Kroah-Hartman, a Linux kernel developer and current maintainer of the stable branch (that’s the version of Linux most of us use).

Marc Ewing and Bob Young

Marc Ewing created a distribution called Red Hat Linux in 1994. The name came from a red hat that Ewing wore while as a student at Carnegie Mellon University. A man named Bob Young had incorporated a catalog business that sold Linux and Unix software accessories the year before. In 1995, he bought Ewing’s business and the two formed a company called Red Hat Software.

Red Hat Linux was one of the first commercially available Linux distributions. Today, Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is common on corporate computers and servers. The company is valued at over $2 billion, the most of any open source company.

Red Hat has contributed heavily to the creation of open source software, producing and contributing to tools that others in the Linux ecosystem benefit from. Two major examples include the Red Hat Package Management format (RPM) and NetworkManager. Red Hat also sponsors the Fedora Project, a free and open source Linux operating system 5 Reasons to Use Pure Open Source Distro, Fedora 5 Reasons to Use Pure Open Source Distro, Fedora Fedora isn't as well known as Ubuntu, and has a reputation for being hard to use. But if this is true, why do so many people continue using Fedora? Read More from which Red Hat pulls code to create new releases of RHEL.

  • Additional names to remember: Roland Dyroff, Burchard Steinbild, Hubert Mantel, and Thomas Fehr — the founders of S.u.S.E. (now SUSE). SUSE formed a few years before Red Hat and has also contributed a great deal to the Linux world.

Matthias Ettrich, Miguel de Icaza, and Federico Mena

In 1996, Linux had a graphical interface and numerous apps, but the experience was hardly integrated. Each piece of software had its own look and feel, as they all came from different developers. Matthias Ettrich found this frustrating, so he started the K Desktop Environment KDE Explained: A Look at Linux's Most Configurable Desktop Interface KDE Explained: A Look at Linux's Most Configurable Desktop Interface What does Linux look like? Sometimes, Unity; other times, GNOME. Oftentimes, though, Linux runs KDE. If you're not using the erstwhile K Desktop Environment on your Linux PC, now is the time to change! Read More .

KDE was an alternative to Common Desktop Environment available on Unix. It used the Qt toolkit and was the first complete desktop environment for Linux.

The Qt toolkit was under a proprietary license, so it wasn’t fully free software. This left other developers wanting an alternative. Miguel de Icaza and Federico Mena founded GNOME GNOME Explained: A Look at One of Linux's Most Popular Desktops GNOME Explained: A Look at One of Linux's Most Popular Desktops You're interested in Linux, and you've come across "GNOME", an acronym for GNU Network Object Model Environment. GNOME is one of the most popular open source interfaces, but what does that mean? Read More the following year. This desktop environment was part of the GNU Project and used GTK+. Qt became a fully free toolkit in 1999.

KDE and GNOME are hardly the only desktop environments available today Which Linux Desktop Environment Best Suits Your Personality? Which Linux Desktop Environment Best Suits Your Personality? What kind of computer user are you? Do you leave icons scattered across your desktop? Do you prefer to work in one uncluttered application? Let's find out which Linux desktop environment suits you best. Read More , but they remain the most established and widely used.

  • Another name to remember: Aaron Seigo, prominent KDE developer and free software advocate.

Eric Raymond and Bruce Perens

Eric Raymond wrote an essay in 1997 called “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” detailing two different approaches to open source software development. The “Cathedral” method involved releasing source code with each release, but keeping code restricted to a specific set of developers during the time in between. This was the approach GNU Emacs used at the time, and it’s the model we see Google take with Android Is Android Really Open Source? And Does It Even Matter? Is Android Really Open Source? And Does It Even Matter? Here we explore whether or not Android is really open source. After all, it is based on Linux! Read More today.

The “Bazaar” method involved developing code over the internet in view of everyone, an approach Torvalds pioneered with Linux. Raymond’s essay inspired some Netscape developers to open source to popular web browser and found Mozilla. It became a book in 1999.

In 1998, Raymond co-founded the Open Source Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to promoting open source software, with Bruce Perens. Perens wrote the Open Source Definition, a document which determines whether a software license qualifies as open source. The open source movement was born from individuals who took issue with the political and ethical stances of the free software movement Open Source vs. Free Software: What's the Difference and Why Does It Matter? Open Source vs. Free Software: What's the Difference and Why Does It Matter? Many assume "open source" and "free software" mean the same thing but that's not true. It's in your best interest to know what the differences are. Read More .

Open source was concerned more with commercial, rather than social, dynamics. Perens left the OSI only a year later, feeling that the open source term had gone too far from the freedoms pushed by the free software movement. He still went on to advocate for open source software using the term “open source,” and he continues to do so today.

  • Another name to remember: Simon Phipps, former president of the OSI and prominent open source advocate.

Mark Shuttleworth

Mark Shuttleworth made over half a billion dollars when he sold a company he founded to VeriSign in the 1990s. in 2004, he founded Canonical, the company that would create the most popular desktop Linux operating system in the world today. You’ve may have heard of it: Ubuntu How You Can Help Canonical Shape Ubuntu Today! How You Can Help Canonical Shape Ubuntu Today! Aggrieved that your favorite operating system doesn't feature the options you love? Reckon that your ideas for an improved desktop experience should be listened to? Well, so does Canonical. Read More .

At the time, Linux had an ongoing problem. The technology to run a free desktop was there. The problem was the user experience. Shuttleworth wanted to produce a Linux desktop that could compete with the likes of Windows and macOS. And he was willing to throw millions of his own dollars toward this dream.

Ubuntu started off as a GNOME-based Linux distribution with a few extra improvements to make the desktop easier for newcomers. Users could try out the desktop before installing by using a Live CD. The installer made switching to Ubuntu as easy as installing Windows software. Afterward, users could install multimedia codecs with the click of a button.

Along the way, Canonical developed more and more projects for Ubuntu, including its own interface. Developers spent recent years creating an Ubuntu-based mobile operating system and a display server. Then, a few months ago, Canonical pulled the plug on many of its desktop projects What Switching Back to GNOME Means for Ubuntu What Switching Back to GNOME Means for Ubuntu Canonical has announced the end of the Unity desktop. From Ubuntu 18.04, the GNOME desktop will be restored. What does this mean for Ubuntu, and its relationship with Linux users? Read More .

Despite reaching millions of users, Ubuntu hasn’t achieved Shuttleworth’s goal of competing on the same level as Windows and macOS. But it has gotten closer than any other Linux operating system to date.

Do the Names Stop Here?

Not at all. There are surely other big names that I have overlooked. There are also people creating today’s attention-grabbing Linux operating systems, such as founders Daniel Fore of Elementary OS and Ikey Doherty of Solus. Who knows what impact their contributions will eventually have on the Linux world?

Then there are the untold numbers of people working in various ways whose actions don’t always get recognized. Some are developers. Some are engineers. Many are maintainers, the people who keep our software repositories usable. Each and everyone one of you deserves our thanks. Thank you!

If you contribute to a free and open source project, or you want to highlight someone who does, leave a comment! Let’s bring more recognition to the names that make the free desktop possible.

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  1. Siju Oommen George
    August 26, 2017 at 5:18 pm

    You could add a link to the Linux time line. Also write about BSDs and it's pioneers because they also contributed a lot for Linux in terms of code and a stand for free licencing. Write about the gpl MySQL problems told by stallman

  2. Steven Pemberton
    August 25, 2017 at 8:24 am

    The article misses the importance of gcc (also from Stallman) as enabler of the whole stack.

  3. Daniel Tripp
    August 25, 2017 at 2:36 am

    A simple mention of the late Ian Murdoch (RIP) of the Debian project would have been the respectful thing to do, without which Shuttleworth wouldn't have had a mostly complete product to package up and remarket as Ubuntu.

    And what Xeno says about Slackware - too - everyone owes Slackware a huge debt of gratitude!

  4. Dave Lane (lightweight@mastodon.social)
    August 25, 2017 at 2:34 am

    Nice article! You could even rightly say, in the intro, that Linux is the *most widely used OS in the world today* (Free & opens source or otherwise) if we agree that Android and ChromeOS are a variant of Linux. Neither of them would function without Linux, that much is for sure.

  5. Xeno Campanoli
    August 25, 2017 at 1:11 am

    The earliest vital Linux I used was called Slackware, and was put together with simple transparency and basic function in mind. You typically compiled your own kernel and the available memory was in the few gigabytes rather than megabytes as is now, so your swap space was important. The thing that finally attracted many of us away from slackware was when the debian package suite finally got it together, and to me it still comes off as the best thing like it out there.

    • dragonmouth
      August 25, 2017 at 6:39 pm

      "the available memory was in the few gigabytes rather than megabytes as is now"
      I think you inadvertently wrote that backwards. :-)

      Slackware was one of the first distros I tried. I liked it because it gave the user the choice of what packages to install. Even today it is still one of the few distros that remains true to the old Linux principle of 'choice'. It has not succumbed to the almost universal rush to offer the prospective users some developer's pre-digested, pre-formated version of Linux.

      • Mike Walsh
        August 28, 2017 at 10:57 am

        Using Puppy Linux as I do, it's also one of the few lightweight distros that doesn't come pre-installed with all the common, big-name apps that people expect to see.

        Pup DOES come with a built-in range of extremely lightweight apps.....most of which the majority of people have never heard of. Yet the choice to install the well-known stuff IS there, if you want it.

  6. dragonmouth
    August 24, 2017 at 12:36 pm

    "Why is it free?"
    To bust Mr. Bill's chops. :-)