Way back, in my late teens, when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth, I had created myself a geek’s paradise in my basement. I had a chemistry lab, with equipment sourced through my high school, a microscope, a telescope, and an electronics lab built with equipment from Radio Shack. I was also starting to experiment with various computers and, in time, would have at least three different Commodore computers, a TRS-80, until eventually moving to a state of the art 286 IBM PC clone. Later, I’d expand the memory on that PC’s main board to a staggering 1 MB of RAM. Oh, the power!
When I think back on those early days, I realise that this was my first foray into Open Source. I taught myself to code in BASIC but a lot of the programs I wound up typing in to my computers came from magazines I’d purchase or borrow from my local library. Sometimes, I’d spend hours typing in the code, line by line, then more time debugging the finished product. Occasionally, I’d modify the program to amuse me in some way. If you can remember Eliza, the psychotherapist, imagine a somewhat psychotic version. Hey, I was young.
After graduating from high school, I decided that computers were my future. When I got my first job working in computers, it was with a strange operating system called GCOS6 which ran on the Honeywell computers I supported; Honeywell, by the way, was a huge computer company in those days. A year or so later, I was introduced to UNIX and I was suitably impressed. This was, in my mind, what modern computers were all about. All through this, I used programming languages where the source was naturally open. Other than the operating system itself, code was code and everything I looked at and worked with was open to my eyes and to my tinkering.
As time went on, I used software I would later start to think of as Free and Open Source Software but at the time, they were just tools. The operating system, after all, was where the magic happened. I suspect I felt that way because that’s what tied all the pieces together. It was also the expensive part that rode on expensive hardware. By 1992, I was managing the systems and network department of the company I worked for, still supporting those expensive UNIX operating systems while using more and more of those open source packages. They had names like sendmail and archie and gopher. With every passing day, I found new and interesting software to make my job newer and more interesting.
Then, in 1992, I ran across a free version of my much loved UNIX. It was a new operating system call Linux. I was on fire. All of a sudden, I could put this Linux, which looked and felt a lot like UNIX, on my cheap personal computer. And it was free, as in beer. Eventually, I’d start to cosy up to the free as in speech part, but I was thrilled to get free beer. I started looking for any and every opportunity to use this new operating system in my job and gently, ever so gently, pushed my company toward using it as well.
I was having fun and I was getting paid for it. How cool was that?
By 1996, when I chose to break out on my own as a freelance IT guy, in 1996, I chose to build my nascent business around Linux and open source software. Free and Open where my words of power and I wielded them with increasing fervor. I was turning into a free software evangelist but my audience was limited to my customers and with them, I tempered my evangelism as much as I could. I made magic for them at a price that was tough to beat, but for the most part, they didn’t care about whether things were free and open. The ‘free’ part is what they liked. They paid for my time and my expertise, but they paid nothing extra for the software they used.
What gave me the opportunity to spread the gospel of open source in a big was a little article I wrote for Linux Journal in September of 1999. Having been published in a professional IT publication, I started selling articles to other magazines, like the dearly departed SysAdmin Magazine. But a few months later, as 1999 drew to a close, I was back at Linux Journal writing a whimsical, but totally techie, article called, “Cooking With Linux”, featuring a French restaurant that served free software running on a Linux distribution. The rest, as they say . . .
I went on to write hundreds and hundreds of articles and six books and I’ve been an editor for a handful of magazines. I’ve given talks on Linux and Free Software. I’ve been on the radio, on television, and more recently, on YouTube. You could say that I was now preaching the gospel of Linux, including Free and Open Source Software, to the world.
Fast forward to me sitting at my computer writing this, sipping on a cup of coffee — you thought I was going to say ‘glass of wine’, didn’t you? I’m more into the concept of Free and Open than I’ve ever been. I believe in Free and Open when it comes to software, hardware, medicine, government, science, education, research, artificial intelligence, the environment, and pretty much anything that affects life on this planet. I see an open future that’s so bright, I’m probably deluding myself, but then, the idea of a free and open source operating system that would one day connect us all and feed us endless cat videos while we battle orcs on a pocket supercomputer seems pretty deluded from a 1980s perspective.
Looking back, it’s hard for me to see a clear straight path from my first forays into computers to the Linux-loving free software guy that I am today. There isn’t one. What there is, however, is a love for the concept of those words “Free” and “Open” and the incredible potential they offer anyone with access to a computer. Taken as a philosophy, those two words could, I believe, take us into a future that we can only achieve with the power of those words. There are other futures, but they’re not the ones we want. Free and Open is where it’s at, and where it should be.
So that’s me, in a nutshell. That’s a rough, poorly detailed map of my open source journey, a journey that still goes on. Today, I’m still involved in Free and Open Source Software, including Linux, and now I’m adding writing and editing for the Linux Professional Institute to continue sharing my passion for this thing that’s part technology, part philosophy, and part ideology. As I post this, I’d love to hear from you out there on the Electric Internet (as Bill Nye the science guy likes to call it). When did you first get excited about open source? What made you so sure about it that you either built a career around it or you changed your life in some way because of Linux and/or Free and Open Source Software.