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FreeBSD and the GPL

Linus Torvalds has said Linux wouldn’t have happened if 386BSD had been around when he started up. We trace the history of FreeBSD and how it’s affected the open source world.

The first free Unix-like operating system available on the IBM PC was 386BSD, of which Linus Torvalds said in 1993: “If 386BSD had been available when I started on Linux, Linux would probably never have happened.”

386BSD was a direct descendant of Bill Joy’s Berkeley Software Distribution, which was the core of SunOS and other proprietary Unix distributions. 386BSD and the patchkit for the port to the Intel chip formed the basis for FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD, which have carried the torch for BSD and open source Unix to this day.

Lars Wirzenius, a student friend of Linus Torvalds, recalled: “FreeBSD didn’t exist then. 386BSD did, but it wouldn’t have worked on my computer, since it required a 387 co-processor. I used SCO Xenix from fall 1991 to spring or summer of 1992, until Linux matured enough to be a usable environment for writing code.”

Alan Cox tells a similar story. When he saw the 386BSD announce he thought “Woah! – finally there is something worth running on a PC.” The trouble was that 386BSD needed floating point hardware, and Linux didn’t. “I hadn’t got the floating point chip, which was 70 quid at the time, so I installed Linux.”

386BSD was a long time coming. The first public release (Version 0.0) was on St. Patrick’s Day, 1991, and was barely functional, Most users had to wait until Bastille Day, 1992 for the first functional release (Version 0.1).

A year or two earlier, a couple of small fixes, and Linux may never have seen the light of day.

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