Historical Debian information What now?
General information Installing Debian Help for beginners
Further information Network addressing FOSS index
Distributions Using Knoppix Main site index

Historical

The first electronic computers marketed were huge, built from many glowing valves, had very little working memory and other resources, and were incredibly expensive. Data was often entered using punched cards or punched paper tape, and working memory could be a three dimensional matrix of wires threaded through small ferrite ring cores. They were designed to run software developed by customers, with a dedicated administrator responsible for each computer. All manufacturers competed to supply compatible hardware, and provided similar operating system commands. Eventually a single company developed a common operating system called Unix for all versions of hardware. The "Unix" system brand name has since been sold a few times, and one of the owners was AT&T who gave free copies to various American universities.
The University of Berkeley in California liked the general idea, and started writing a new compatible version from scratch, known as the Berkeley Standard Distribution, BSD, with its own copyright, so that it could be made available under their own licence conditions. There are now at least three main distributions based on this; Free, Open, and Net BSD, see http://www.bsd.org.

Various software developers continued to contribute to the Unix and Unix Compatible systems. Richard Stallman in California decided that Unix was overpriced and underdeveloped, so started writing his own set of compatible software libraries prior to writing his own operating system. See the Free Software Foundation http://www.fsf.org and the GNU Operating System Project http://www.gnu.org

The various libraries and a Minix operating system were seen by a student in Finland called Linus Torvalds, and he decided to start writing his own operating system based on what others had already achieved, just for fun and as part of his university course. After a while he put a note on the internet describing what he was doing, how far he had gone, and asking whether anyone else was interested. People from the whole of the rest of the world decided to join in.
Someone tried to copyright the name Linux, so, prompted by many enthusiasts, Linus Torvalds managed to block the application and obtain that brand name himself, see http://www.linux.org, which includes a Linux timeline..

Unix compatible systems are generally very easy for the standard user, but far more facilities are available, and there is overall security, so there is a need for some knowledge of administration to select, configure, and use the required system.
Specified users have password protected initial access, and are then allowed to access a restricted range of facilities unless the owner of other facilities, usually the admininistrator, has specifically allowed that. Users can be made members of specific groups, allowing any priviledges associated with those groups. Files owned by individual users can be made accessible to group members, or anyone else, subject to the restrictions set by the file owner. For example, a user can create a file and decide to make it readable and writeable by office or family members and readable only to anyone else, or even totally prohibit access by other users.

Unix was the first well-known operating system, but it did not remain as the only system.
Computer hardware was developed and improved, and many small companies were created to use off-the-shelf components. Some, like Apple, found their own niche markets. The BBC produced the popular BBC-Acorn computers to accompany their series of TV programmes to teach viewers about computers, computing, and programming.

IBM had gained a reputation for building the largest and most expensive mainframe computers, but one of their best customers asked IBM to build a small computer that he could use on his office desk. IBM really did not want to get involved, but agreed to assemble something to fit the specification. They could not find anyone willing to write an operating system until Bill Gates agreed a contract to supply one, on the written condition that he would be the sole supplier of operating system for any similar IBM personal computer hardware.
IBM agreed the deal without any idea of the consequences, and Bill Gates paid one of his friends to do the work. As soon as the IBM customer took delivery of his new personal computer all his friends demanded one, and IBM soon found themselves deluged with new orders. Bill gates had a guaranteed market with very few restrictions on what was offered or charged.

Microsoft continued to concentrate on the personal computer market, and jealously guarded its own software copyrights. However, Microsoft were happy to grab any other facilities that they thought might be useful, and were quite happy to fight the legitimate owners in court if they could not obtain the copyright by the purchase of an entire company. Some users and traders were allowed generous price advantages on condition that they accepted numerous trade restrictions and became Microsoft Only organisations. Microsoft were happy to reduce any new hardware to a crawl with additional must-have extras, and provide as many facilities for advertisers as they thought their customers would be prepared to accept, so that customers always yearned for new and faster hardware, which would also be reduced to a crawl because it would come with the latest software gimmicks. Backwards compatibility was only provided in name, so it may be necessary to install a specific software version to open and read a file, and companies were forced to purchase new to be able to communicate with others.

This did not prevent individuals and groups from writing software that could be compiled from high level languages to run on any hardware under any operating system. Serious programmers were writing software which conformed to the high performance, quality, and security requirements of the mainframe market, so there is a huge pool of software that is totally unknown to the majority of Microsoft customers. Much of it has been written by university staff, students, and professionals, to fill a perceived need. It covers a great range of subjects, including education, research, and development, as well as the more common utilities and facilities, although there were relatively few computer games.

There is little point in continually re-inventing the wheel, but it can often be further developed and improved, with optional patches and configuration choices. Packages are designed to work together, and the original programming language source code is published complete with the original notes and comments to explain how and why it works as it does, and assist in code modification, improvement, and bug fixing.

General information

Return to foss index