The person who pronounced the future of Linux in this forceful way is not an ordinary hobbyist. Andrew S. Tanenbaum, the creator of Minix, chose those words to headline the article he posted on the Usenet discussion group comp.os.minix just a few months after the release of the first version of the operating system originally devised by Linus Torvalds. . His criticism, unsurprisingly, did not fall on deaf ears.
The next day Torvalds posted a reply on the same forum that sought to debunk Tanenbaum’s criticism. The reason the main Linux instigator took that particular criticism of his kernel operating system so seriously was that his own creation was clearly and deeply influenced by Minix, which, in turn, was based on Unix. That first exchange of views gave rise to an extremely interesting debate that has lasted for years, and which has survived to this day as “the Tanenbaum-Torvalds debate.”
Andrew S. Tanenbaum is not as popular as Linus Torvalds, so it is worth taking a moment to briefly review why he is so influential. Although he graduated from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a degree in physics and a doctorate in astrophysics from Berkeley, Tanenbaum quickly became passionate about computer science in general, and operating system design in particular.
He was born in New York, and spent his childhood in White Plains, a town very close to the city of skyscrapers from which, curiously, Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, also comes. However, most of his professional career has spent at the Free University of Amsterdam, where he has taught computer science for decades. His work as a teacher led him to publish several textbooks dedicated to operating systems, distributed systems, and networks. And furthermore, it also led him to write the Minix source code for educational purposes.
Tanenbaum’s books are unanimously considered authentic reference works, and are used in computer science schools around the world to explain the architecture and design of operating systems. In fact, at least one of them, the one entitled ‘Operating systems: design and implementation’, contains an appendix with the complete source code of one of the first versions of the Minix kernel so that it can be consulted by computer science students interested in the design of operating systems.
Linus Torvalds has never hidden how much the Tanenbaum book I just mentioned inspired him as much as Minix. In “Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary,” the autobiography he published in 2001, he acknowledges this with the clarity that something obvious requires. However, although the influence of Minix in Linux is very deep, Torvalds did not completely respect the architecture proposed by Tanenbaum.
Instead of limiting himself to creating a Minix clone, he chose to deviate in some essential sections, and one of these decisions, precisely, led to the conflict that arose when in early 1992 Tanenbaum published his famous criticism in the discussion group comp.os. minix from Usenet.