Lwn, Slashdot, and many others have marked the recent announcement of Linux Journal’s demise. I’ll take this opportunity to share some of my thoughts, and to thank the publication and its many contributors for their work over the years.
I think it’s probably hard for younger people to imagine what the Linux world was like 20 years ago. Today, it’s really not an exaggeration to say that the Internet as we know it wouldn’t exist at all without Linux. Almost every major Internet company you can think of runs almost completely on Linux. Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc, etc. All Linux. In 1997, though, the idea of running a production workload on Linux was pretty far out there.
I was in college in the late 90’s, and worked for a time at a small Cambridge, Massachusetts software company. The company wrote a pretty fancy (and expensive!) GUI builder targeting big expensive commercial UNIX platforms like Solaris, HP/UX, SGI IRIX, and others. At one point a customer inquired about the availability of our software on Linux, and I, as an enthusiastic young student, got really excited about the idea. The company really had no plans to support Linux, though. I’ll never forget the look of disbelief on a company exec’s face as he asked “$3000 on a Linux system?”
Throughout this period, on my lunch breaks from work, I’d swing by the now defunct Quantum Books. One of the monthly treats was a new issue of Linux Journal on the periodicals shelf. In these issues, I learned that more forward thinking companies actually were using Linux to do real work. An article entitled “Linux Sinks the Titanic” described how Hollywood deployed hundreds(!) of Linux systems running custom software to generate the special effects for the 1997 movie Titanic. Other articles documented how Linux was making inroads at NASA and in the broader scientific community. Even the ads were interesting, as they showed increasing commercial interest in Linux, both on the hardware (HyperMicro, VA Research, Linux Hardware Solutions, etc) and software (CDE, Xi Graphics) fronts.
The software world is very different now than it was in 1997. The media world is different, too. Not only is Linux well established, it’s pretty much the dominant OS on the planet. When Linux Journal reported in the late 90’s that Linux was being used for some new project, that was news. When they documented how to set up a Linux system to control some new piece of hardware or run some network service, you could bet that they filled a gap that nobody else was working on. Today, it’s no longer news that a successful company is using Linux in production. Nor is it surprising that you can run Linux on a small embedded system; in fact it’s quite likely that the system shipped with Linux pre-installed. On the media side, it used to be valuable to have everything bundled in a glossy, professionally produced archive published on a regular basis. Today, at least in the Linux/free software sphere, that’s less important. Individual publication is easy on the Internet today, and search engines are very good at ensuring that the best content is the most discoverable content. The whole Internet is basically one giant continuously published magazine.
It’s been a long time since I paid attention to Linux Journal, so from a practical point of view I can’t honestly say that I’ll miss it. I appreciate the role it played in my growth, but there are so many options for young people today entering the Linux/free software communities that it appears that the role is no longer needed. Still, the termination of this magazine is a permanent thing, and I can’t help but worry that there’s somebody out there who might thrive in the free software community if only they had the right door open before them.