It should be abundantly clear to anyone who follows technology that Linux is a worldwide success story and has been for a long time. The open source operating system kernel originally developed by Linus Torvalds while he studied at the University of Helsinki, turned 25 earlier this fall.

As of now, Linux is used as a basis for countless new products coming to market every day. Before we take a look at some of those, though, let’s go through some of the background to Linux’s success.


90s computers came with terrible operating systems


When Torvalds started hacking away at his pet project, the world was starved for a cheap option to get modern, stable operating systems onto PC computers.

Operating systems are the software that make a computer’s hardware work together and interact with the user and the software they need. The mainstream commercial operating systems for personal computers in the early nineties were straight out of clown college: MS-DOS was absurdly bereft of features and Windows, gaining popularity by then, was only a plastered-on windowing system.

Apple’s Mac computers of the day ran a similarly rudimentary operating system that may have appeared more elegant on the surface. But classic MacOS too, lacked many of the features we expect computers to do every day now: like the ability to reliably pretend like they’re doing many things at once, preemptive multitasking.

Gameplay animation from the original Prince of Persia PC DOS game.

Linus Torvalds got around to writing early versions of Linux when he got bored of playing Prince of Persia on his brand new 386 PC.

Alternatives to PC and Mac operating systems were commercial Unix variants for PCs that were prohibitively expensive. In the early nineties, IBM and Microsoft had just teamed up to build OS/2, in what through its own drama spun off to be Microsoft’s NT. This more modern operating system, is the foundation for all Microsoft systems today.

But as Linus started playing around with a 386, all that was far off in the future.

So it wasn’t surprising that the world of computer enthusiasts in the early nineties released a lot of bottled-up enthusiasm about an operating system with all the promise to make their 386-class PCs more useful. The holy grail for enthusiasts was to mimic the capabilities of powerful, networked computers seen at universities and businesses and Linux delivered.

The early days of Linux’s success story were overshadowed by the public’s quite correct perception that Torvalds’ creation couldn’t take on Microsoft’s near-monopoly on the desktop OS market.

But Linux’s real success story is one built up over time. Linux is now the defacto, go-to way in which new systems are being built.

Wondering what we’re on about? Well, let’s take a look at where you can find Linux.



Early android prototype phone.

An early Android prototype phone, from before it the touch screen became the obvious thing. Photo by Kai Hendry.


1. Almost every smartphone except iPhone

Android, used on billions of smartphones, is built around the Linux kernel. Linux for server use and similar, is normally is perceived as distributions like Debian, Ubuntu or Red Hat/Fedora that bundles a similar set of tools beginning from GNU command line utilities/compilers and central pieces like glibc and the Xorg graphical system.

Android uses different components to be suited for smartphone use, helping to make the touch screen the most used computer type ever. Among other things, Android apps are mostly Java code run in a special virtual machine.

But this sort of modularity is indeed where Linux differs from most operating systems: it really is to be thought of as just a kernel. How you build the rest of a Linux product is just like, your opinion, man.

A Linksys WRT54GL router

This iconic router, the Linksys WRT54G(L) may not be the prettiest, but it’s one of the most well-known early uses of Linux in consumer electronics. Its likeness was also used to represent “the internet” being broken and in need of a reboot in an episode of South Park.


2. Wireless routers and other network equipment


In the early 00s, components like router boards started getting powerful enough to run a general operating systems, rather than tiny, very specialized Real Time Operating Systems (RTOS). Linux’s convenience and free availability made it a good choice for inexpensive network gear.

In 2005 Linksys, the manufacturer of the iconic WRT54GL routers, inadvertently made the Linux router a commodity by initially failing to comply with the Linux GNU General Public License at first. The GPL requires modified versions of Linux to be made available to the general public, and after being told to hand over the source in a bit of a media scandal, Linksys did.

That Linksys code is now the precursor to a lot of open source router firmware projects, like OpenWRT. Despite its age and relative slowness, Linksys still sells the WRT54GL, which still enjoys significant demand thanks to its tinker friendliness.

By now, a lot of the heavy-duty routers and switches powering big and small networks in businesses are starting to be based on Linux, too.


Google's first production server rack

Google has grown into a major part of the modern internet. Originally, their business relied on running Linux on cheap, very generic hardware stacked into piles of servers. Photo by Steve Jurvetson.


3. The first generation of successful, mass-scale internet companies


Companies like Google, Amazon and Yahoo are well known for their use of Linux and other open source operating systems, like FreeBSD to get started building server infrastructure easily. The operating system is now something you just download.

But as we hinted at before, proper ones used to cost you an arm and a leg, not counting application software. It bears repeating: it wasn’t clear back then, but Linux played a big role in making the operating system a commodity.

Linux isn’t alone in this category, even today. WhatApp’s messaging system is build on FreeBSD and so are Netflix’s ingenious appliances shipped to ISPs over to world to serve close to 100 gigabits worth of video per second!

Linus Torvalds autographing a student's laptop at the University of Helsinki in 2012

Linus Torvalds autographing a student’s laptop at his alma mater, the University of Helsinki in 2012. Photo by Tuomas Puikkonen.


4. A vast majority of websites, large and small


Companies of all sizes on the internet realized the value in using free operating systems to conduct business. Many realized that individuals and companies need websites and need to run them without paying lots of money for hardware and expensive, high-end internet connections, and operational costs.

So, the web hosting industry and ‘shared hosting’ was born, around Linux and other open source software, like the web server Apache. Ever since, Linux has become sort of a default platform on top of which tools are developed for making web sites of many kinds, including this one.

In other words, when you surf the “information superhighway”, whether it be to buy tickets to a concert or wasting time on Facebook, you’re using Linux most of the time.

A screenshot of Cpanel, ca 2008

Software packages from companies like Cpanel (pictured) made it possible for hosting entrepreneurs to quickly set up relatively easy, customer self-service access to Linux servers used to serve hundreds or thousands of smaller websites. This industry of mass web hosting on shared hardware was instrumental to making it possible for every small business to have a website and e-mail. Photo by Tim Dorr.


5. The most expensive machines


Linux’s world domination didn’t start out small: servers running websites are usually relatively beefy computers with a lot of resources that need to be shared efficiently.

Remember reading how really small computers, like routers, are using Linux too? Well, that makes Linux scalable. From tiny router boards, Linux scales up to the world’s very fastest computers, HPC (high-performance computing), or supercomputers with tons and tons of CPUs and RAM.

Ever since the mid-00s, Linux has been pretty much the default on big computers used for scientific calculation and modelling in academia and other research fields.

Linux is even sometimes used on mainframe computers, big commercial machines that are built to run critical applications like financial systems very reliably without hickups.

Do you use these machines? Well, indirectly: for example, the weather is being prognosticated on supercomputers and your financial information is being run through heavy duty machines.

The MareNostre supercomputer in Barcelona

There’s a whole lot of Linux going on here: The Marenostum supercomputer (pictured) at Barcelona Supercomputing Center – National Supercomputing Center in Spain runs Suse, a German, enterprise friendly Linux based operating system. Photo by IBM Research.


6. “Cloud computing”, the idea that makes mobile apps run smoothly and cheaply


In the mid 00s, building complicated or big online services required, mostly, that everyone buy or rent their own physical servers, often more capacity than needed, for hundreds or thousands of dollars a month. Granted, this was cheaper than computer operations ever before, but still, infrastructure could become a great capital expenditure., the bookstore, which by the mid-00s was transforming into an everything store, realized that they could sell unused compute resources in their data centers in the form of bundling virtual servers, isolated copies of several operating systems on one machine.

Furthermore, Amazon included tools for developers to buy these virtual servers on-demand. Suddenly, the equipment that makes large scale apps and services crop up became pay-as-you-go infrastructure. Further useful services like mass storage and CDN made Amazon Web Services, instrumental in making mobile apps and web services boom, creating only operational expenses, like they never did during the first dotcom bubble.

Unsurprisingly, by this point, Amazon used the open source Xen virtualization hypervisor, or “virtualization engine” on top of Linux, to slice out the virtual hardware they rented.

Amazon Web Services logo projected on a floor

After Amazon Web Services, the hosting industry, which previously just turned on servers and kept them running, had to reinvent themselves. Amazon’s cloud hosting popularized developer-centric, on demand access to resources like virtual servers and mass storage, making it easier to quickly power up things like new mobile apps and watch them grow. Photo by Thomas Cloer.


7. Integrated systems, the “invisible” computers all around us


As hinted at with the earlier router example, Linux early became a great operating system for devices you don’t see or think about as computers, or to me more precise, the field of “integrated systems”. You can find Linux on everything from computer kiosks, ATMs, signage, in-flight entertainment systems, ATMs, smart TVs and computer monitors, you name it. Many cars run Linux on some of their many different subsystems, Tesla being a famous example.

The same goes for the new generation of “internet of things”, industrial and home devices that are gifted smarts by being connected and containing tiny computers. There’s still potential use cases where Linux isn’t the right choice, and smaller, Real Time Operating Systems like VXWorks and QNX are used. But largely, Linux is the where one would start to look and poke around for building a large number of products.

A white Asus EeePC netbook, 2007.

Laptops used to be terribly expensive up until about a decade ago. Suddenly, “netbooks” like the Asus EeePC (ca 2007) flooded the market, making usable, albeit hardly luxurious portable computers accessible for a few hundred dollars. Many of these original mini laptops, intended for browser use, ran Linux-based operating systems, cutting Microsoft out of the loop. This trend still continues with product categories like Chromebooks. Photo by J Aaron Farr.


8. Most home computer that aren’t on Windows run Linux, or share some Linux DNA

Home PCs are the holdouts for mass adoption of Linux, and that kind of makes them an exception by now. Still, as we said, Android, “the new Windows”, is Linux based. So is ChromeOS, the limited and well secured Google operating system inside typically cheap Chromebook laptops.

Likewise, fun, small hobbyist, and prototyping computer boards, like the Raspberry Pi, are designed to run Linux by default.

Furthermore, Unix, the family of operating systems Linux belongs to, originating from academic, big iron computers, is well represented elsewhere where there aren’t copies of Windows. Apple’s main operating systems, iOS, and MacOS, are designed and built as Unix-like systems from the start. Apple uses a kernel known as XNU, surrounding it with tools largely adopted from FreeBSD. Sony’s PlayStation consoles, generations three and four, are also based on FreeBSD.


So, there you have it: a summary of how Linux (and open source systems very much like it) are taking the world by storm, or rather fortifying the empire that is free, open source software. All these use cases of Linux and open source operating systems at large, have the further benefit of building a foothold for all kinds of other open source applications in businesses, from web oriented servers and programming languages, ready made web-apps, databases and much more.


This means that the components for building the next great thing for taking over the world are standardized and available to everyone. When you think about it, it’s a kind of magic.

Title image by John Vetterli.

Thomas Nybergh

Thomas Nybergh

Thomas Nybergh is a writer with a passion for mobile technology and user-centred design. He has spent nearly a decade working at the crossroads of technology and marketing and now spends far too much time on the internet helping to make it tick.
Thomas Nybergh