The Linux kernel and the second version of the GNU General Public License (GPLv2) turned 30 this year. As part of that major milestone, we asked Red Hatters who have been using or contributing to Linux since the early days about their experiences. What was it like contributing to Linux, what was it like using it? Could you imagine that Linux would have the impact it's had on the world up until now?
Today we’re talking to Sebastian Hetze who has been using Linux since the early 1990s. Hetze joined Red Hat in 2012 and is now a Principal Solution Architect on the German Enterprise Sales team.
Q: What was your first encounter with Linux? When did you start contributing to the project?
A: I actually read the first announcement from Linus (Torvalds) in comp.os.minix and watched the project during the first couple of months while still working with my Minix on Atari ST. I started using and contributing to Linux when I bought my 386 PC in the summer of 1992.
Q: Do you remember what your first contribution was? What was the experience like?
A: I was using and contributing to free software some years before the Linux project started. With Minix on the Atari ST with a 2MB extended RAM, I had the opportunity to run GCC and compile applications from comp.sources.unix for use in my Minix system. Since Minix was somewhere between BSD and SystemV when it came to tty and kernel structures, many of these sources did require some minor patching to get them compiled and run on Minix. I am not sure what the first contribution was, but certainly not more than a minor patch or advice on how to port something to Minix on the mailing list.
With Linux, my first contribution was support of the upcoming user groups/communities and the comprehensive system documentation in the German language.
Q: Back in the day it was possible to “let the magic smoke out” of various hardware components when installing Linux. Do you have any stories about blowing up monitors or otherwise bricking hardware while you were learning how to do all of this stuff?
A: You are asking about breaking hardware, right? Actually, I tried to avoid that. In particular, I did take some effort to get my Diamond SpeedStar to work with the Linux X Window System by examining the video signal with my analog 20 mHz dual channel oscilloscope. That saved my monitor.
I wrote an article for the German iX computer magazine to share my findings with the world.
Q: After you started contributing, why did you stick with it? What were you hoping Linux would become?
A: It was fun and we were striving for world domination.
Q: How did you come to work on open source full time?
A: After sharing Linux documentation in the communities for a while, Bernd Sommerfeld, a friend and bookseller from J.F. Lehmanns bookstore in Berlin, recommended making a proper book from it.
At first, we offered the manuscript to an established publisher, but they rejected it. So Bernd talked to J.F. Lehmanns and Heise’s eMedia to preorder 300 copies of the book. With this budget, we were able to print 900 copies that were delivered to the Hannover CeBIT fair in 1993. The first edition sold out after six weeks, and several more editions were created and published over the course of the following years.
The book was in the top ten on the official best-selling German computer books. We’ve sold more than 80,000 copies while the source was and still is available online under the GPL and has been printed and copied in university printer pools innumerable times.
It is not a coincidence that Linus started his Linux project from Helsinki, Finland on the basis of the Amsterdam, Netherlands-based Minix OS. In the early days, Linux was a European project.
Especially in Germany, Linux’s popularity has grown very fast. This is partly due to the very good adoption of the early Linux development in the two most influential computer magazines, c't and iX. Harald Milz and Andre von Raison, in particular, published lots of really enthusiastic articles about Linux.
From a market development perspective, we have seen the benefits of a broad and well-established channel market for Linux. With the emergence of the self-published and self-distributed Linux Anwenderhandbuch, which has become a bestselling title in computer bookstores across Germany, Linux distributions, first as floppy disk and then as CD distributed software, were sold by these bookstores as an additional and fast-growing business.
Besides the well-known SUSE and several long-forgotten others, Delix (later acquired by Red Hat) and LST (later acquired by Caldera) had been very successful German Linux distributions.
The early Linux Kongress meetings and events have taken place in Germany. My company LunetIX, which started with two people in 1992 and quickly grew to around 10 in the late 90s, was an integral part of this German open source ecosystem.
After running my own business for 20 years, I decided to join Red Hat in 2012, and I am really enjoying the momentum Red Hat brings into the open source business.
Q: Over the years we’ve seen a huge variety of people contribute to Linux and open source, from high school dropouts through Ph.D. candidates and beyond, across a range of disciplines. What was your background in that sense, and what led you to open source in the first place?
A: My academic background includes a bachelor’s in mathematics and physics, but when I started with free software I was earning my living by driving a taxi cab with the Kreuzberger Taxigenossenschaft, a renowned collective from the Berlin alternative and house squatter scene.
There were several bulletin board systems with communities around different flavors of technology and social movements. To me, the Usenet and the internet behind it was the most appealing technology.
There was shareware and public domain software for many computer systems, but free software was a whole different story, which attracted me.
Q: Thinking back to those early days, did you ever imagine where Linux would be now? Did you ever imagine you’d still be contributing so many years later?
A: When I was 20 years old, I did not believe mankind would make it to my 40th birthday without a major nuclear war. When I started with Linux at the age of 30, I had stopped thinking too much about the future. On the other hand, why should I ever consider stopping contributing?
Q: During those years, what has surprised you the most about the evolution of Linux?
A: I did not have any expectations, so there is no surprise. But there are lots of things I find remarkable about Linux. For example, the momentum and spirit of the people developing it, which make it recognizably different from BSD Unix.
BSD predates Linux and it has been available as 386BSD pretty much the same time as Linux evolved. Technically, BSD was more advanced, more stable and more secure than Linux. In the Usenix conference 1997, Linux had an official track parallel to the traditional UNIXes. But there was no joint session.
When I saw Dennis Ritchie on the other end of an aisle during one break, I pulled Linus with me towards Dennis to have both of them meet and talk. There was not much evolving from that meeting but a nice photograph I can share today.
Q: Now, looking forward -- how do you think Linux will continue to evolve? Where do you think it might be in the next 10 years? 30 years?
A: It’s already on Mars, how much further should it get? Linux is just the kernel. The open source ecosystem? Its methods and communities are evolving.