What a long, strange trip it has been...and continues to be


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

May 25, 2009 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

This year is a very special year for me. It is forty years ago, in 1969, when I was a college student that I programmed my first computer.

Since I could not afford the high prices of software in those days, I joined the Digital Equipment Corporation User's Society (DECUS), and made great use of the DECUS software library. Software that had been written by engineers, mathematicians, business people, scientists and others whose main job needed a computer. "Professional programmers" mostly came later.

Shortly after that, when I was moving toward graduation, I had a professor seriously tell me "Jon, you will never be able to make a living writing software." I am still trying to find out if he was correct.

For those of you who are historians, you may also realize that Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie started working on a small operating system "just for fun" that eventually became known as Unix in 1969.

And finally in 1969, in Helsinki Finland without much fanfare, a child was born who would eventually architect a kernel that would rock the computing world. Yes, Linus turns 40 this year.

It was thirty-two years ago that I started working for Bell Laboratories. While I had worked on many different types of systems, this was the first time I had ever touched Unix, and while it was not necessarily love at first sight, eventually it became my only lover.

Time passed, and in 1983 I went to Digital Equipment Corporation to work on their own version of Unix. Eventually I met Linus, then in his mid-twenties, and saw Linux for the first time. This time, it was love at first sight.....and the operating system was pretty good too.

I came back from that meeting with Linus and told my co-workers that "Linux was inevitable".
Most of them laughed at me. Most of those people now work for Red Hat Software.

So for the past fifteen years I have been traveling the world, telling anyone who would listen about Free Software and its advantages over closed source. I write about it, and think about it a great deal.

I look for parallels in life that can be used to illustrate concepts of Free Software, and there are more than people might expect.

As the Grateful Dead once said in their song "Truckin", "Lately it occurs to me: What a long, strange trip it has been."

While a lot of people are still using closed source, proprietary software, the message of Free Software is becoming better understood by more people. I believe we are gaining the critical mass needed to provide good jobs for anyone writing and contributing to Free Software.

On Tuesday, May 26th I leave for a conference in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. There, as I have for a couple of conferences this year and will for a couple more conferences this year, I will be talking to young people (and not-so-young people) about both the past history and the future promise of Free Software.

Join me in conversation. Let's prove my professor wrong.


  • DEC

    Great article, Jon. I worked at DEC for many years working with UNIX. Best place I ever worked. I really miss it......

  • Nah, Jon's not THAT old, he's just had a really FULL life!

    I first met Jon one afternoon in the snack area in MKO2-1 - somewhere betweeen the "C" and "D" poles. That building in Merrimack, NH still stands but it carries the label of a large financial services company. I have worked there three times now, too, so Jon isn't the only one who "gets around"!

    I suppose if Jon does not want to work forever, he could retire some time during this next decade, but if I know Jon at all, that will only happen when he stops having fun and the trips become more of a drain than an experience.

    I could catch Jon in a hall somewhere today and I'm sure we'd still have hours of things to chat about. Yes, we both have hair that says "we've been around a while", but neither of us is anywhere near done - at least that's not my plan!

    Jon, always great to hear the stories! -Brian
  • Your Age

    Jon listening to that story would make think that your close to 100 years old, am I far off ?
    Only a person that old can set back and think about the fun they have had in their Life Time.
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