Dial-Up Internet, Floppy Disks, and Booting from CDs: Join Us for a Trip Down Linux Memory Lane

By: Brian Gladstein

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It’s hard to believe, but Linux has been around for nearly 30 years. That’s a long time, and a lot has changed. Our beloved operating system was born in an era that many engineers today would find unrecognizable. SaaS, WiFi, and so many other technologies that are now hard to imagine living without, of course did not exist.

Linux’s status and role within the broader technology ecosystem have changed, too. In the last three decades, Linux has gone from niche hobby, to a “cancer” on proprietary software (in the words of former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer), to playing a foundational role in nearly every company’s code. In other words, what started as a tinkerer’s pursuit has evolved into one of the most influential and important technologies in use today. It’s actually pretty amazing, when you stop to think about it.

We love a trip down memory lane, so we recently asked Cmd followers on Twitter and LinkedIn: What was your first Linux distro? The results showed us just how far we’ve come—and made us reminisce about the days gone by.

If you’ll indulge us in a trip down memory lane, here are some ways Linux has evolved over the last thirty years:

1. Floppy Disks… Enough Said

Remember floppy disks? The big ones? The really big ones? (We’re showing our age here.)

File:Floppy disk 2009 G1.jpg
Source

In the era of the floppy disk, just the act of getting Linux operational was an accomplishment. Back in the day, distribution channels were not nearly as nimble as they are today. Just installing Linux required serious logistical considerations, time, and access to the right people, sources, and materials. Software had to be installed from a physical source, like a floppy disk.

Reading information off these floppy disks could take a computer hours and hours, and from hard drives to network connections, setting Linux up on computers was completely manual.

2. From CD-ROMs to Downloads

Eventually, CDs came along. Compared to floppy disks, booting from a CD was a massive innovation and improvement. And, even if you had an internet connection in the mid to late 90s, CDs were often the best option to install Linux; dial-up internet was slow and downloading large files could become expensive.

The limits of distribution channels meant that, even though Linux was free to use, vendors made money by creating huge “how to” books that included a CD with the software. Alejandro L. shared this anecdote about buying the Slackware Linux distro as part of a book—and to avoid high download costs. Check out this creative approach to proving ROI:

Since installing Linux depended on buying books, or, as the respondent below explains, getting a free CD in a tech magazine subscription, users often ended up with whatever distro was available, not necessarily the one that was best for them. Not for the faint of heart, but there was still some fun to be had:

Thankfully, Linux fans today have many more options and resources available to them. Linux is easier than ever to access, and downloads are quick and easy over high-speed internet. Any questions can be answered in an instant online via GitHub—which, coincidentally, Linus Torvalds also pioneered. We’ve come a long way, baby.

3. Dial-Up Internet vs. WiFi

Speaking of dial-up internet: in Linux’s salad days of the 1990s, downloads could take hours. Imagine this scenario:

For younger programmers or those who’ve joined the community over the last decade, this slow internet speed is hard to wrap your head around—but that’s how it was. Now it takes a matter of minutes to get started with Linux. Think about that the next time something takes more than three seconds to load and you start to feel impatient…

4: Short-Lived Operating Systems

Everything was done manually in the 1990s and early 2000s, and technology was evolving fast. Operating systems became obsolete quickly, so computers had a short shelf-life—no sooner had you bought one, than the OS became outdated (or so it felt). And those operating systems weren’t so great, either. They lacked the flexibility, options, and room for creativity that many programmers craved.

Enter Linux, which was perfect for old computers that needed a second life as an experiment, or new computers with less than desirable operating systems. Old-school Linux users probably knew at least one person (or they were that person) who had several huge desktop computers running Linux, or who ditched a built-in OS for Linux. Take this user, for example:

Today, Linux is at users’ fingertips within a few clicks—anyone can set up a Google or Amazon account and access an affordable, robust, full-fledged Linux-based computing environment. No finicky configurations required. And computers rely on Linux like never before. In fact, Apple’s computers are built on a Linux foundation, and Microsoft is moving closer to fully embracing Linux, too. Things really have changed.

5. Trial and Error vs. Clear Use Cases

Today, we have nearly three decades of Linux experimentation to draw from, but in the early days, trial and error was the name of the game. Linux was new, and no one knew exactly what it could be used for.

Of course, configuring Linux by hand didn’t always go according to plan.

Casper W. was a precocious Linux user at the age of 8 and tried installing Red Hat Linux at least 20 times before giving up. This wasn’t uncommon, as early Linux distros required users to work with fundamental computer code. When something went wrong at that level, it was hard to troubleshoot and hard to come back from.

Once everything was set up, hobbyist programmers sometimes felt like a dog that caught its own tail—it was so hard to set up Linux, and once it was done, some programmers just sat back and thought: “What now?” In other words, people understood the potential of Linux without yet having a lot of ideas for what to do with that potential.

This is what made it so exciting, as well, though. The early days of Linux were a time of exploration, when everything had to be done from scratch. We love this tweet:

In those early days, everyone was still figuring out the real-world use cases for Linux. It could do so many things, so many Linux lovers spent hours sharing interesting new ways to experiment with Linux. Arguably, today, some of that early-explorer novelty has worn off, even if the possibilities are still technically endless.

Linux in 2020 and Beyond

It’s remarkable to think how far Linux and the technology world have come in the last two decades. Many of the software and hardware tools we take for granted today were non-existent in the 1990s and early 2000s, which made it a real Wild West. At any rate, Linux is here to stay, and we at Cmd are excited to see where it goes in the next twenty years.

Thanks for joining us on this trip down memory lane. If you didn’t get a chance to tweet at us the first time, share your experiences with us on Twitter or on LinkedIn.

What was your first Linux distro? How are things different today than the first time you used Linux?

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