25 Years of Linux as My Primary System

Posted by Nate Bargmann on Mon, Feb 6, 2023

A personal anniversary of sorts slipped by me a few weeks ago. Such is life when tending to other obligations. I was catching up on news articles on Linux Weekly News (LWN) and saw the article Zawinski: mozilla.org’s 25th anniversary. That jogged my memory that I had forgotten that it was around mid-January 1998 that I decided to try using my Slackware ‘96 (four CD set) Linux based system as my primary operating system. More below.

By this point I had been dual-booting between MS-DOS/MS Windows 3.1 and since August 1997 MS Windows ‘95 and the Slackware Linux installation since late summer 1996. I had upgraded my computer with a 486DX/100 (100 MHz clock speed—blazing!) based mother board and 4 MB of RAM (at that time RAM was very expensive. 8 or even 16 MB would have been desirable but the pocketbook dictated otherwise. I did have two hard disks in the computer by then, the 212 MB primary and 420 MB secondary, The secondary was primarily for data storage but I had enough freed space to make a partition for Slackware and install the base system. The partition was small enough that I refrained from installing the x or xapp disk sets (even though distributed on CD-ROM by that time Slackware was organized in sections intended to fit on a set of 1.44 MB floppy disks). I was working strictly in the console with no graphics at that time!

By early 1997 I had obtained a 1.2 GB hard disk (look at all that space!) and had moved things around so it was the primary disk and I moved data from the 420 MB drive onto the new one and made room to install the additional disk sets to allow for running XFree86 and graphical programs. These were the days when the X server did not have the capability of automatically configuring itself for the attached monitor, although monitors did not support supplying such information as that was a few years in the future. One had to either hope to find a “mode line” that worked with your monitor or write one which could be fraught with peril. As I had an NEC MutliSync XV15 monitor there was a little bit of a safety factor if the mode line was off a bit. Fixed rate monitors were not so forgiving, so I read at the time. One had to be quick with the Control-Alt-Backspace key sequence to kill the X server.

Working in X was a new experience. I was familiar with MS Windows 3.1 but this X stuff was completely new and mostly ugly by comparison. There were none of the Graphical User Interface (GUI) toolkits that we take for granted these days such as GTK or GNOME. No Qt as Free Software but available under a restrictive license or KDE although its development was announced in October 1996. No Xfce, Cinnamon, MATE, or any of the other several desktop environments available for Linux and UNIX systems these days. When XFree86 was started the default Slackware ‘96 configuration was to start the FVWM95 window manager. A “window manager” is not a desktop environment. It is a program that allows for doing things like resizing or moving the windows of an X client program. Without a window manager an X client can be used but its window is fixed on the screen. FVWM95 borrowed the look of MS Windows 95 but X clients had their own look depending on the GUI toolkit in use. The result was a visual patchwork of programs, some written in Athena Widgets, OPEN LOOK, Motif, XFORMS, or Tk. Of these Tk is still in use in software such as gitk which is a GUI repository browser for the Git Source Control Management (SCM) system.

In the realm of office productivity software along the lines of MS Office, the pickings were quite slim in early 1998. I decided to enter the transactions of my farm operation into a spreadsheet and move away from entering them long hand into a paper account book, so I would boot into Windows 3.1 and work with the spreadsheet there and then boot back into Slackware for whatever else I wanted to do. Mostly this meant spending time in the Netscape Navigator suite which included the Web browser, HTML editor, email program, and some other programs I no longer recall. I was finally able to use Star Office Calc (Sun Microsystems had bought Star Division a provider of an office productivity suite for Unix like systems and made available for a no-cost download) on my Slackware Desktop in 2000 for the 1999 tax year. As the months and years rolled on project after project was announced or made a release that moved Linux based desktop systems closer to where it is today.

Reading the comments from the LWN article referenced above it was noted that the Netscape announcement that it would release the source code to its Navigator 5 product was carried in the second issue of LWN. LWN was new to the scene having been launched around mid-January 1998. Until then the primary source for my Linux news was Slashdot which was quite new and exciting at the time having been launched just a few months earlier. Another news site that launched about that period was Linux Today. These two latter sites have become much less relevant to me and I don’t visit them any more. LWN has changed very little and still retains the same focus it had 25 years ago which is rather remarkable.

Part of the reason I no longer visit those sites is that they were bought by some disinterested party as advertising platforms and lost that personal touch they started out with. Another reason is that Linux and all the projects it spawned have matured. Yes, there are still new things to learn about. It’s just that 25 years ago in mid January it really seemed like the dawning of a new era, heck, the term “Open Source” had yet to be coined! That apparently happened on 03 February 1998 and was motivated by the Netscape announcement. Things were happening quickly among developers and users of Free and Open Source Software—now known as FOSS—and checking the sites above resulted in plenty of news updates throughout the day.

The past quarter century of using a Linux based system as my primary operating system has been quite rewarding. In early 2001 I joined the Hamlib project as the idea of computer control of radio equipment had long been of interest to me. Over the years I performed many roles in the project simply by being the one still around. These days I am the release manager, mailing list and site administrator. I’ve been active in some other related amateur radio software projects. All of this due to the collaborative development model more or less invented by the Linux kernel project. Collaborative development of software is now the norm. A quarter Century ago it was a very radical idea. Today sites like GitHub, Gitlab, SourceForge, and many others are centers for collaborative development. These days not engaging in collaborative development is a radical idea!

A quarter century ago I could not have imagined anything like the Raspberry Pi that is capable of running a full featured Linux distribution. Other Single Board Computers (SBC) that employ a System on a Chip (SoC) are equally impressive. I have several! Back then it wasn’t hard to imagine that Linux would be ported to the largest of computers (IBM mainframes) but that it would also be ported to the smallest of computers was completely off my radar. The first inkling of such was the discovery in the early 2000s that the Linksys WRT54G router/WiFi access point was running a Linux system! Soon projects came to be to develop custom Linux based images for routers running similar hardware. The OpenWRT project is one of the most popular and what I’ve chosen to run on my head-end router. Other network devices such as the old 802.11 line from Ubiquity Networks on my network also run an embedded Linux system.

No single company could have ever developed a system that could scale or be ported from tiny embedded devices to mainframe computers. The collaborative development model made possible by the world wide reach of the Internet made this not just possible but a reality.

It has been a very fun past 25 years. Where will the next 25 take us?