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.
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.
Stallman wrote the GNU Public License, 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 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 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 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 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 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, 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 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 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 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.
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.
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.