History of Linux: Time For Open Source Documentary

What is the history of Linux? A $10,000 Kickstarter campaign by Brian Thomason aims to support the creation of a video on the past, present and future of Linux.

Christopher Tozzi, Contributing Editor

May 13, 2013

3 Min Read
History of Linux: Time For Open Source Documentary

How did Linux originate, where is it presently and in which directions is it headed for the future? These are the big questions that a longtime Linux user and developer named Brian Thomason seeks to answer in a documentary film, if he can secure enough funding through a crowdsourcing campaign on Kickstarter. Here's hoping he succeeds.

Since I'm a history professor by day (don't ask how I ended up a tech blogger on the side, unless you have time for a lengthy answer), I probably think more about the past than most people. Still, it has always struck me that the Linux community doesn't do a particularly good job of chronicling its origins. There are a few resources online on the subject, most notably a pretty good Wikipedia article, and a handful of academic books touch on the history of Linux. But as a decentralized community with no money to pay corporate historians or construct sumptuous "visitor centers" like Microsoft's, Linux fans have little that compares with the memory-preservation toolset of the proprietary software world.

That's why the project Thomason has proposed is so interesting. It could narrate the history of Linux in a way that has never before been done — not, at least, since the now dated documentary Revolution OS appeared more than a decade ago — while also taking stock of the current state of Linux and its future in the cloud, in Big Data, on mobile devices and beyond.

To be sure, accomplishing those three major tasks in a documentary of reasonable length is a tall order, especially for a programmer with no apparent film experience. (Thomason says he will be joined by John Brooking, of the 1oClock Multimedia video production company, if his fundraiser is successful; still, this is a major task to tackle for a two-man team of which only half has worked previously in video development.)

But whatever the quality of the film Thomason might end up producing, there's a great deal of value simply in the discussion the project itself would stir within the Linux community. It would push users to think about the origins of their preferred operating system, the challenges it has faced and changes it has undergone over several decades, and the roles it is set to play in the computing landscape of the future.

And that's important for more than recreational purposes. Understanding Linux's history is vital to recognizing the difference between, for instance, Android — which has made Linux massively popular on phones, but in a stripped-down version whose users usually have no idea they are running an open-source operating system — and the traditional Linux distributions that remain open in the tradition Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds established many years ago.

Understanding Linux's past will also help to explain the different strategies currently being pursued by open-source competitors like Red Hat and Canonical, and to gage the likelihood that the latter will succeed in its ambitions to make Ubuntu popular on smartphones and tablets.

So, here's hoping Thomason succeeds in raising the $10,000 he has deemed necessary for covering "the bare minimum costs" of the project (he has pledged to use his own funds for expenses above that amount) and creating the documentary. The Kickstarter campaign, which began on May 6, has raised $1,810 as of this writing on May 11, and has 28 days left to go — which are not bad prospects at all for a project that could have much greater significance for the Linux community than 10 million more lines of code.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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