Happy 10th Anniversary, PC Quest Linux

This month (March 2006) marks ten years since PC Quest carried the first ever Linux distribution in India on it’s cover CD – in March 1996.

That Linux CD (the distro was Slackware) was the result of some intense lobbying by several people, but initially the work of three people:

  • Prasanto Kumar Roy, then the editor of PC Quest (and also the guy who originally tapped me on the shoulder in 1992, saying that he’d publish my articles which became COMversations). Without PKR’s decision to expose PCQ readers to new technologies such as Linux, much of the revolution would not have happened.

  • Kishore Bhargava, my “partner in crime” in all matters related to datacomm, internet and of course Linux throughout the 1990s.
  • Me.

In February of 1996, I was on a holiday in Goa with my family when I received a call from PKR, saying that we had a green light for the Linux CD, and that we had a week to get it together. What followed was one of the most amazing pieces of online jugglery we had ever been involved with then, with me dialling over the world’s crappiest phone line into my BBS in Bangalore, “shelling out” to DOS, and building a CD master image using resources frantically pulled together from various machines in the office, then shipping the thing to Delhi, where Kishore manhandled the thing into the final usable form, and from where it was shipped off for mass duplication.

The March 1996 issue hit the stands on time (which in those days meant “while the month on the masthead still matched the one on the calendar”), and went on to achieve… nothing much.

It wasn’t the breakthrough we had hoped it would be, largely because there was really no way for us to judge the response. No widespread internet and email, then, you see. :)

But it was a success, enough for us to be asked to repeat it in early 1997, and *that* issue was a hit, so much so that we repeated it in September 1997 with a new version!

Then came the biggest one of them all – the May 1998 issue, which swapped Slackware for RedHat Linux. Man, did people hate us for it? :) Yeah, they hated us – they hated us so much that the issue was so badly sold out that PCQ had to reprint it just to meet the demand!

The May 1998 issue (put together in March 1998, by the team for the first time working out of the PCQ dungeons in Delhi, instead of being scattered all over the countryside) was a first in many ways – it wasn’t just a faithful reproduction of a CD, but a complete remaster, with stuff that was useless here being thrown out, and stuff that was desperately needed being included. This included my (in)famous “pcqupdate” shell script, Nikhil’s innumerable little hacks all over the place, the hilarious writing, etc.

And of course the many little incidences that only the original PCQ Linux team knew about – the notorious “iamachicken” boot prompt response needed for KK to be able to get boot into Windows again (he held out for months!), the famous “NT is stabler than Linux” remark by one of the team members, as the NT box he was referring to happily bluescreened at that very moment :) , the “raid” on a certain delivery van filled with bakery stuff from “Claire’s”, the stacks of pizza, the late night emergency calls (“dude – we finished writing the final master – and it doesnt work”)…

Over the years, many people joined the project, and the team was honestly one of the hardest working and most productive ones I have ever had the pleasure of being part of. The dedication, the passion, the sheer bullheadedness that characterised each member of the team, fighting increasing opposition from motivated software vendors – it was something you had to experience to believe.

The project became the most prominent source of Linux (and information about it) in India. In fact, in 2003 I was in Mauritius, and I found out that our articles and CDs were heavily referred to even there. The two PCQ Linux issues in 2001 became the standard reference material on Linux for both academia and industry in India, and had become the thing that many of today’s software and network engineers first cut their teeth on.

Almost a million PCQ Linux CDs have gone into circulation, with countless copies being made all over the country. People stood in long queues in front of newspaper stores to grab a copy. “Sorry, PCQ sold out” signs were a regular sight.

Many publications attempted to emulate PCQ’s success story, but to the best of my knowledge, no publication ever matched it. There are even magazines dedicated to Linux these days here in India, but not a single one of them ever managed to achieve the impact that PCQ made from the mid-90s to the early 2000s.

Unfortunately, PCQ itself chose not to recognise this 10th anniversary, so I thought I’d just stand up and put my hands together for the many writers, contributors, readers, wellwishers and users of that little project of ours. Linux (and Free and Open Source Software in general) wouldn’t have achieved as much as it did here in India (and elsewhere) without your hard work over the past decade, and the passion, blood, sweat and even tears you put into it.

Many thanks, PKR, Kishore, Nikhil, Vinod, Neeta, Santhosh, Rishab, Hash, Divya, KK, Sougata, Anil, Vaibhav, Shanu, Sony, Gopi, Guru, Avinash, Biju, Kalyan, Madhu, Mrinal and the many people who came after us – you were the best.

And many thanks, PC Quest, for letting us do what we did, ten years ago.