I've been Linuxing since before you were born

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6 readers like this
Penguins gathered together in the Artic


Once upon a time, there was no Linux. No, really! It did not exist. It was not like today, with Linux everywhere. There were multiple flavors of Unix, there was Apple, and there was Microsoft Windows.

When it comes to Windows, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite adding 20+ gigabytes of gosh-knows-what, Windows is mostly the same. (Except you can't drop to a DOS prompt to get actual work done.) Hey, who remembers Gorilla.bas, the exploding banana game that came in DOS? Fun times! The Internet never forgets, and you can play a Flash version on Kongregate.com.

Apple changed, evolving from a friendly system that encouraged hacking to a sleek, sealed box that you are not supposed to open, and that dictates what hardware interfaces you are allowed to use. 1998: no more floppy disk. 2012: no more optical drive. The 12-inch MacBook has only a single USB Type-C port that supplies power, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, external storage, video output, and accessories. If you want to plug in more than one thing at a time and don't want to tote a herd of dongles and adapters around with you, too bad. Next up: The headphone jack. Yes, the one remaining non-proprietary standard hardware port in Apple-land is doomed.

There was a sizable gaggle of other operating systems such as Amiga, BeOS, OS/2, and dozens more that you can look up should you feel so inclined, which I encourage because looking things up is so easy now there is no excuse not to. Amiga, BeOS, and OS/2 were noteworthy for having advanced functionality such as 32-bit multitasking and advanced graphics handling. But marketing clout defeats higher quality, and so the less-capable Apple and Windows dominated the market while the others faded away.

Then came Linux, and the world changed.

First PC

The first PC I ever used was an Apple IIc, somewheres around 1994, when Linux was three years old. A friend loaned it to me and it was all right, but too inflexible. Then I bought a used Tandy PC for something like $500, which was sad for the person who sold it because it cost a couple thousand dollars. Back then, computers depreciated very quickly. It was a monster: an Intel 386SX CPU, 4 megabytes RAM, a 107-megabyte hard drive, 14-inch color CRT monitor, running MS-DOS 5 and Windows 3.1.

I tore that poor thing apart multiple times and reinstalled Windows and DOS many times. Windows was marginally usable, so I did most of my work in DOS. I loved gory video games and played Doom, Duke Nukem, Quake, and Heretic. Ah, those glorious, jiggedy 8-bit graphics.

In those days the hardware was always behind the software, so I upgraded frequently. Now we have all the horsepower we need and then some. I haven't had to upgrade the hardware in any of my computers for several years.

Computer bits

Back in those golden years, there were independent computer stores on every corner and you could hardly walk down the block without tripping over a local independent Internet service provider (ISP). ISPs were very different then. They were not horrid customer-hostile megacorporations like our good friends the American telcos and cable companies. They were nice, and offered all kinds of extra services like Bulletin Board Services (BBS), file downloads, and Multi-User Domains (MUDs), which were multi-player online games.

I spent a lot of time buying parts in the computer stores, and half the fun was shocking the store staff by being a woman. It is puzzling how this is so upsetting to some people. Now I'm an old fart of 58 and they're still not used to it. I hope that being a woman nerd will become acceptable by the time I die.

Those stores had racks of Computer Bits magazine. Check out this old issue of Computer Bits on the Internet Archive. Computer Bits was a local free paper with good articles and tons of ads. Unfortunately, the print ads did not appear in the online edition, so you can't see how they included a wealth of detailed information. You know how advertisers are so whiny, and complain about ad blockers, and have turned tech journalism into barely-disguised advertising? They need to learn some lessons from the past. Those ads were useful. People wanted to read them. I learned everything about computer hardware from reading the ads in Computer Bits and other computer magazines. Computer Shopper was an especially fabulous resource; it had several hundred pages of ads and high-quality articles.

The publisher of Computer Bits, Paul Harwood, launched my writing career. My first ever professional writing was for Computer Bits. Paul, if you're still around, thank you!

You can see something in the Internet Archives of Computer Bits that barely exists anymore, and that is the classified ads section. Classified ads generated significant income for print publications. Craigslist killed the classifieds, which killed newspapers and publications like Computer Bits.

One of my cherished memories is when the 12-year-old twit who ran my favorite computer store, who could never get over my blatant woman-ness and could never accept that I knew what I was doing, handed me a copy of Computer Bits as a good resource for beginners. I opened it to show him one of my Linux articles and said "Oh yes, I know." He turned colors I didn't think were physiologically possible and scuttled away. (No, my fine literalists, he was not really 12, but in his early 20s. Perhaps by now his emotional maturity has caught up a little.)

Discovering Linux

I first learned about Linux in Computer Bits magazine, maybe around 1997 or so. My first Linuxes were Red Hat 5 and Mandrake Linux. Mandrake was glorious. It was the first easy-to-install Linux, and it bundled graphics and sound drivers so I could immediately play Tux Racer. Unlike most Linux nerds at the time I did not come from a Unix background, so I had a steep learning curve. But that was alright, because everything I learned was useful. In contrast to my Windows adventures, where most of what I learned was working around its awfulness, then giving up and dropping to a DOS shell.

Playing with computers was so much fun I drifted into freelance consulting, forcing Windows computers to more or less function, and helping IT staff in small shops migrate to Linux servers. Usually we did this on the sneak, because those were the days of Microsoft calling Linux a cancer, and implying that it was a communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.

Linux won

I continued consulting for a number of years, doing a little bit of everything: Repairing and upgrading hardware, pulling cable, system and network administration, and running mixed Apple/Windows/Linux networks. Apple and Windows were absolutely hellish to integrate into mixed networks as they deliberately tried to make it impossible. One of the coolest things about Linux and FOSS is there is always someone ready and able to defeat the barriers erected by proprietary vendors.

It is very different now. There are still proprietary barriers to interoperability, and there is still no Tier 1 desktop Linux OEM vendor. In my opinion this is because Microsoft and Apple have a hard lock on retail distribution. Maybe they're doing us a favor, because you get way better service and quality from wonderful independent Linux vendors like ZaReason and System76. They're Linux experts, and they don't treat us like unwelcome afterthoughts.

Aside from the retail desktop, Linux dominates all aspects of computing from embedded to supercomputing and distributed computing. Open source dominates software development. All of the significant new frontiers in software, such as containers, clusters, and artificial intelligence are all powered by open source software. When you measure the distance from my first little old 386SX PC til now, that is phenomenal progress.

It would not have happened without Linux and open source.

Carla Schroder is a self-taught computer nerd who laid hands on her first computer around her 37th birthday. She is the author of the Linux Cookbook, Linux Networking Cookbook, the Book of Audacity, hundreds of Linux how-tos for various publications, and was the senior managing editor of Linux Today and Linux Planet.



Where have you been? I haven't seen your byline since you left Linux Today?

Steve Stites

Hi Steven, I'm still upright and breathing. After LT I freelanced, then went to work for ownCloud, and now I'm freelancing again. You can always find me on linux dot com; they exert a magnetic pull I cannot resist. In between nerding I'm a farmer.

In reply to by Steve Stites

... Linux wise I win (;-))

It was a DLD 1.5 with an 0.9-Kernel in the early 90s running as a dual boot on my WIN3.11 notebook. DLD was a RedHat like edition and was like RH 2-ish.

Other than that i started on an IBP 370 writing pascal programs in the mid 70s and Apple II was the first "personal computer" for me too.

Nice "blast from the past"! Thanks for sharing!

Cool! I first used Linux in the preV1.0 kernel days, when it came on umpteen 3.5" floppies. And now I feel old.

Gosh! I'm only 3 years older yet I used my first PC in 1986! BTY, you missed out CP/M....:-)

I glanced at the byline to see if it was someone I was aware of or dislike (lol) and deja vu! I remember Carla Schroder from back in the day and seeing "Carl". Good to see you still bouncing around, doing Linux and (hopefully) shocking geek kids.

Great story Carla! My wife has had the same experience as you when it comes to computers. Some things she knew; some she picked up from me. A friend of ours was just amazed at how much she knew about Linux. Boy, did she put him in his place (lol). Any any case, thank you for sharing your story.

Looked like my bio from college oh and I got you beat. I ram linux 0.99.4r on a slackware distro. Not sure what year that was but that was while in college and graduated in 1996.

No, you haven't. I'm not THAT young... I was introduced to Unix in the late 70s. bought my first Unix-capable PC in, er, I think it was '92, put Coherent/386 on it, ran that until MWC folded in or around early '95, at which time I started using Slackware 2.1 (with the hot new 1.1.59 kernel!!) I'm still at Linux, currently run CentOS at home and at work.

Awesome story! I'm so glad I'm not the only "old fogey" who remembers the giant floppy discs the size of dinner plates, and the putty colored computers that were EVERYWHERE back in the 70's and 80's!....I've watched PC's go from humongous clakety-clack devices to sleep touch-screen flat-panel...HiDef....wireless...Bluetooth....."smaller than your toaster"devices that can connect you to places like Jakarta, Indonesia in seconds, and that can allow you to call places like London without needing a 75 digit PIN number and a lot of quarters!

Great story and reading! :)

Wow...so encouraging. I use to go to railway ticket counter, bcause site use to work only in Internet Explorer :-( People use to suggest me to use Windows and buy ticket online. BUt I stayed Linux professional throughtout my life and enjoyed my work. Today working with Redhat and got an offer from Microsoft.... :-)

I am 70 years old, therefore you have been using Linux since I was born. I have a Shuttle powered by an AMD K-2800+ processor (abbreviation is mine) 2 GB RAM and an ancient SCSI -1 Seagate HD that has been coaxed along since before hair turned gray housing a still, completely operable Red Hat Linux 6. Loved your trip down memory lane, especially "Computer Bits" "Computer Shopper" and discussion of "shells" and "prompts."

I started with Linux around the same time, tried Red Hat but then moved quickly to Mandrake which was less hard to work with. But my first computer was much earlier; my dad saw the potential of computers pretty early even though his background was in the arts, so back in about 1978 or so we got a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I with 4k of RAM and 2k of ROM, the latter giving it the ability to run programs in BASIC. Forget floppies, it loaded programs from a cassette tape player. Or you could type them in and spend ages hunting typos . . .
On the plus side, it "booted" in about 0.1 second.

How did you get your hands on Linux about 7 years before Linus even debuted it? Hahaha

Just to say I'm not your age (I'm only 33) but I guess I feel the way you do in a way. It seems that at some point this feeling of being able to change things, to control stuff, to share what you do, to change the way things are slipped away. We've lost it at some point. Today I still work as developer but the spirit has changed, probably because we were stupid enough to trust some companies who told us they love what we do but instead have just seen an opportunity to make business no matter what. Now you see dev who will give full power to companies such as Google just by using frameworks such as Angular2. They don't even realize what they are doing. And it doesn't matter in which language you code (C/C++, Python, Perl, Ruby, JS, PHP, or whatever) there is always someone at some point who will make you believe they love the spirit and will turn it into their advantage. Look at what GNU/Linux has become, no matter which distrib. It's a nightmare. We've compromised ourselves way too much. It's our own fault.

Thank you for sharing Your story.

I love stories like this. I got to Linux by way of OS9 running on a Tandy Color Computer and GEOS running on a DOS Shell. Tandy dropped the CoCo and GEOS stopped being GEOS, I was introduced to Linux by a suggestion on one of the GEOS forums. Slackware first, then Redhat, a couple of others, then Debian and it's derivatives. Slackware and setting up X-Windows was fun and challenging. Then setting up my first home network and dialup script. In a way I miss that, because now, everything "just works" (mostly). But it is still way more cool than being locked into a windows environment.
Thanks for sharing your journey.

Cool story to read Carla! I think I have been starting to use computers around the same time. Only I was 7 at the time. (am now 29) Also even relived MUD (and later MUSH myself) experiences with the young researcher club I admitted.

Also remember when I came into touch with Linux the first very vividly. First had a book called 'Linux in 24 hours' which had a Red Hat 5.0 distribution. Later on I bought a distribution collector CD which contained several different. Remember we runned a lot of SuSE as well. But YaST was so damn slow. Preferred Red Hat more. Only the last 10 years it's all been about Debian and Ubuntu. (okay and I have had a period of using Gentoo)

Linux and the free software community is magical! Comes most close to the feeling of exploring and maybe also using a BBS, and everything you did was totally new.

I used Linux before there were distributions and I got it on a Tape crtridge made on a TI UNIX system. I believe it was Debian (by Deb and Ian) Getting it to work was an adventure in those days. The first proper distro I had was Soft Landing Systems Linux. It came on 21 or so 3.5" floppies. One error and you could start all over. Then came RedHat and wonders of wonders, CDROM. You could begin to think about actually using Linux as a pastime rather than the adventure of just getting it loaded and running. Having your _own_*nix platform was incredible for those of us who always worked on somebody elses, usually an employer. Now, like so many other miracles, it's simply taken for granted. Thousands of files, by thousands of hands over the years. I quit Windows before 3.1 and have never looked back. Poor folks can now write the next big thing. When I started, a C compiler was way beyond the means of a working programmer. We should all appreciate the gift that gives everyone a chance.

I have something of a similar story, having had an Apple IIe. I was ready to upgrade and it seemed a choice between an Apple IIgs and an Amiga, and I went with the latter based on the irritation that Apple always seemed to sell you a bit less than you needed so you had to upgrade. I loved Amigas, and clung to them as long as I could. When I finally had to move on, I was absolutely appalled with Windows, finally finding out about Linux and RedHat 5.2. One of the biggest joys in my life was when I finally got X to work on that old Gateway computer!

Thanks Carla for your story.
I'm 10 years younger and I feel old telling my 13 year old son about "these days".
After 6 years of toying with Sinclair's ZX boxes, which where great for learning things, I started in 1991 with unix and switched in 1993 to linux, which was not that hard being a sysadmin at a tech university. Ever since I stayed with it, making a living off it the last 25 years :)
Most of my apprentices where (and are) girls, so having girl geeks around is nothing special for me.
As distros go, I'm more of a SuSE guy, but we use nearly every kind of linux, depending on the purpose.

For the last decade I was trying to persuade people to start using linux, and suddenly, with the advent of Win 8 and Win10, it works: people are actively asking for a switch over to linux.
I don't have to talk, I can simply give them a USB stick with my favorite distro and they go and try it themselves. #ThanksMicrosoft :))

I started on Linux about the same time as you and also started with Redhat moving quickly to Mandrake which was wonderful! My biggest problem always used to be wireless adapters on laptops but Mandrake did a half decent job at supporting quite a few which saved a lot of work with finding drivers.

I've worked in IT since 1979 and my first computer (that I owned anyway!) was a Tandy TRS80 Coco (16K RAM/16K ROM)! I kept upgrading that and eventually had a couple of 5 1/4 inch floppy drives and it run OS/9 (a Multi-user Unix-like system): Wow!

"The first PC I ever used was an Apple IIc, somewheres around 1994, when Linux was three years old."
Wow, this is information I totally was not aware of. Here I really thought Linus didn't release his OS to the hobbyists until October 1991:

BTW, I played with the IIc as well: it was my first computer, ever. Wrote a few really lame stories on it. I remember being very excited by the potential at the time (1985).

I too have used Linux since the beginning and even used it for many of my grad school projects. The desktop application has, is, and will always be, a hobbyist toy. The problem is that it lacks reliability and documention. Linux breaking is a given. A recent update bricked my Linux box. One month later it's running with no sound. Soon will do a wipe and reinstall. When's the last time you had to do that on Windows or Apple? 90's?,

I remember buying a 10 version Linux pack that had 10 different Linux versions. This was of course 5 or more years after I had stopped being a SCO Unix admin and became just another IT guy running Windows 95 across a LAN. Fun and exciting days. Thanks Carla - loved the story.

I've had very similar experiences, though my journey took me through DOS, Windows, Novel Netware and finally to Linux in 2000. As a network administrator for a small family-owned regional wholesale company that has used Linux from the very early days, I was privileged to have the ability to grow in my knowledge of Linux by using it every day. My personal use of Linux has been exclusive for at least the last 10 years.

Back in those early days, I worked for an electronics store that sold Apple computers and purchased my first computer (an Apple II+). During those times, I also learned a unique and wonderful programming environment called Savvy by Excalibur Technologies and even created a point-of-sale inventory program using this language for a record store. (yes, vinyl records, those things that are coming back in style). Savvy is long dead and even finding references for it online is a tough nut to crack.

At 61, I'm still working hard at promoting OS software and the Linux operating system. What's not to love? It keeps me young!

Amazing story, thank you Carla.
Now I feel young! (about 50)

Amazing story, thank you Carla.
Now I feel young! (about 50)

First machine experience was Fortran II on an IBM 1620 in 1965. I was in high school. On to IBM 1130 in college (I still have the card decks!). DEC stuff in the 70s and 80s, RSTS and VMS. Is there any terminal interface better than VT-100, maybe with graphics extensions to emulate Tek 4010? Back when 640x40 was high-res.

One unfortunate consequence of my initial introduction to digital computers (my first computers were analog) is that all my computer programs, regardless of language, tend to look like Fortran. I may be old, but not ancient: I never actually used TECO, although I know people who did...

Unix-like things (AIX) early 80s, so I was indoctrinated into VI and ELM. Good-bye KDT editor. I eventually graduated to EMACS and Mutt. Still use LaTeX, occasionally groff for simple stuff.

First Linux was Slackware, used to run a mail server. A devil to set up, but then very reliable. The machine went more than a year without a reboot. Then RH4, then 6 and 7. Some serious use of Free BSD and SunOS for a few years, but after 4.11 I drifted back to Linux. Now running various versions of the inevitable Ubuntu at home.

Xubuntu seems to work well on old hardware (my PC cost $35, surplus), regular Ubuntu (Gnome, KDE, Unity), not so much. I'm not a fan of impressive desktop effects that chew up cycles, especially if you don't have a supported GPU. Version 12.04 was the last usable one on this machine. Xubuntu runs great.

I still miss my Sparc 5, even though it was only an 85MHz processor with 256M RAM that cost $12,000. My surplus $35 machine has a 1.4GHz processor and 2GB RAM... Mutatis mutandis, etc., maybe even progress.

"Maybe they're doing us a favor, because you get way better service and quality from wonderful independent Linux vendors like ZaReason and System76."

Not really, because you don't really have such companies outside the US, in Europe, at least in my country :(

Nice work Carla. I had a very similar experience. Started with Linux back in 2000. Never looked back. It's like a glove now. Good luck with finishing your thesis.

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