Upon graduating high school 30 years ago this week (back then mid-term graduation was available upon having enough credits and a job (farming counted!) even though I would not receive my diploma until May, I was technically graduated) and finding myself in the real world, there needed to be something to occupy my time. I had always read books and listened to the radio (AM on a very rare purple Panasonic Pana-Pet) as the only family TV had broken in the early ’70s and it never got fixed. Growing up on a farm offered many opportunities to learn various crafts in a hands-on manner, but electronics, from which I was intrigued by my dad’s army days stories in radio school, wasn’t really one of them. Even so, just before I left high school for good, a class required an essay and being tired of writing about dairying, I went to the library to look for a subject. By some quirk of fate (I prefer to think of it as divine intervention) I found “Amateur radio” in an encyclopedia. I put together all I could find into the essay (I don’t know if the manuscript has survived until today, that would surely be fun reading), which wasn’t much. The most important bit of information I received from that effort was the mailing address of the American Radio Relay League and I was soon learning more about the fascinating world of amateur radio and electronics.
Almost at the same time the burgeoning micro-computer revolution caught my attention, mostly through the pages of the Radio Shack catalogs and sales fliers. By today’s standard those computers were laughably slow and very expensive. At that time they represented the leading edge of computing for the home and small business. They were still prohibitively expensive for a farm kid who had no access to other like minded enthusiasts locally. So the computing itch waited until November 1983 when, a couple of weeks after receiving my Novice amateur radio license (KA0RNY) Radio Shack put their Computer Computer 2 with 16k Extended Color BASIC on sale for $150! This was a deal too good to pass up so I jumped right in (it should be noted that our family did have an Atari 2600 game console–and working TVs–a couple of years earlier). The only thing was that I found out quickly that telling a computer what to do was just a bit more difficult than the Star Trek re-runs made it seem! Still, I was intrigued and soldiered on, never writing anything of note, but learning a lot. A few years later I would expand the memory on my Coco to 64k, add a disk drive and printer, and used it for packet radio in the late ’80s. That is a tale for another time.
By 1998 I was a veteran computer hobbyist. I was frequently helping other hams with their DOS/Windows issues and work was becoming more PC centric. I had been playing with Slackware Linux since September 1996 and had installed Windows 95 in mid-’97 on the assumption the company would migrate to it. I was comfortable and enjoying the ham radio software landscape as it existed in the late ’90s. Something was happening and I sensed change was in the air.
Running Linux on and off by way of dual-booting my only computer I tried to keep track of Linux news. Aside from my subscription to Linux Journal there was precious little real time news until the launch of a nerd news site, Slashdot.org, hit the Web in 1997. Suddenly there was some inspiration from like-minded computer nuts and it was very evident to me that this thing called Linux was gaining popularity very rapidly and was worth getting to know very well. Several prominent developers were hams and amateur radio packet radio drivers were a part of the official kernel and still are to this day!
Right around the middle of January of 1998 I decided that it was time to try and use Linux as my full-time computing system. Mind you, this was long before live CDs, auto-configuring X, a decent office suite or browser, integrated desktops, or many of the things we Linux desktop users take for granted today. Offerings were quite limited or non-existent compared to the Win 95 side, so why did I stick with it? Because it was fresh and things were happening and I could have a front row seat to history as it turned out.
A couple of weeks later came an announcement out of Silicon Valley that shook the software world. Netscape Communications, which just a couple of years earlier was the darling of the tech industry and was floundering in the face of bundling of MS Internet Explorer on new computer systems, announced that it was going to release the code base of its forthcoming Navigator 5 suite under an “open source” license. The news was greeted with great fanfare and some weeks later launch parties were held and the world of Free/Open Source Software (FOSS, only the acronym had yet to be invented) had at its disposal the code base of a commercial product known and used around the world. The future promised sunshine and lollipops.
The reality, as it turned out, was not quite as rosy. The Navigator code base originally had a lot of third party source code in it which Netscape did not have the rights to release openly. This left the code lacking a lot of critical infrastructure. In short, a working browser could not be built for any platform. At least not quickly. Fortunately, interested developers kept at their work and their legacy is now known as Firefox. Back then, though, the months dragged on. I continued to use Navigator 4.5 through 4.8 (with its ugly Motif ui) until fall of 2000 when Mozilla Seamonkey Milestone 18 was released which ran about as well on my computer of the time, a Thinkpad 760ED running Debian.
More and more software was becoming available, some of it commercial titles such as Word Perfect and Star Office (later Open Office and now Libre Office) and others Free Software such as KDE, GNOME, and many, many more. By the turn of the century three years later the Linux desktop was very much a reality. Today, ten years on into the 21st Century, it is the equal or superior to anything else out there, in my opinion. Applications abound as do various distributions resulting in a bewildering but wonderful array of choices. Live CDs that allow a “try before installation” experience of the Free Desktop are now standard fare for distributions. Through it all, I’ve been right here watching the Free Software desktop grow and have even participated in its growth a bit and it has been quite a ride.
“You’ve come a long way baby” and the best is yet to come.