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Enough about Linus, what’s the story with the penguin?

Dec 15, 20036 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsLinux

Torvalds wanted a 'beanbag' for a logo, and that's what Larry Ewing gave him.

The Linux albatross just wouldn’t sell. And the Linux platypus, well, who’d buy anything from him? Ah, but the Linux penguin, there’s a bird that could really drive an industry.

“The little guy hasn’t been very active in coding the actual kernel, but he sure as hell has made for a very recognizable mascot,” says Linux creator Linus Torvalds. “There are people out there who have no interest in computers and wouldn’t know what Linux is, but they will recognize Tux as ‘that computer thing.'”

“That computer thing” is everywhere. From ashtrays and earrings to coffee mugs and baseball caps, Tux, as the penguin is known, has gained a kind of cult following. The portly bird is the main character in a video game available at Seven-foot incarnations mingle with show-goers at tech industry conferences. Plush stuffed Tuxes are available on the Web. And IBM plastered larger than life images of Tux on the sides of buildings in New York during its Peace, Love, Linux campaign in 2001.

But why a penguin? Who came up with the image of a bird that some complained looked too much like Homer Simpson? It all started in 1996, when the 5-year-old operating system began to be more widely used and talk began about the need to create a logo for Linux.

“I always felt that the Linux logo should be something fun and something you can identify with,” Torvalds explained in an e-mail interview. “And being fun and friendly pretty much means that you have an animal logo.”

Fun and friendly wasn’t exactly what some in the Linux community were looking for, though. Torvalds says one strong camp was firmly entrenched behind the idea “that what Linux needed was not a cute cuddly logo at all, but something very staid and corporate to offset the ‘goofy’ nature of Linux development instead.”

Nevertheless, with Torvalds squarely behind the penguin, debate over other possibilities – among them an albatross, a platypus, an eagle and a fox – quickly ended. Among his inspirations for choosing the bird is that he was bitten by one while in Australia.

A contest eventually was held to choose the logo. Larry Ewing, who was 22 at the time and finishing up an electrical engineering degree at Texas A&M University, was working at the university’s Institute of Scientific Computation and saw the discussion on the Linux kernel mailing list. An avid artist, Ewing figured penning a penguin was a better use of his time than studying for finals.

Torvalds was looking for a plump, content penguin – “Not fat, but you should be able to see that it’s sitting down because it’s really too stuffed to stand up. Think ‘bean bag’ here,” Torvalds wrote in a 1996 e-mail describing his ideal bird. That image is what Ewing gave him.

Ewing used the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) to create the bird. And then, in good open source fashion, he set it free. Anyone can download and then tweak the image, as long as they credit Ewing and the GIMP.

Ewing says initially it was difficult to watch his creation be manipulated by other artists.

“It’s both flattering and at the same time you think, ‘Ah, I wouldn’t have drawn it like that,'” he says.

“But then I decided it was more interesting to see what came out of other people than it was to worry about it,” he adds.

The ability to alter Tux – who according to Linux community legend wasn’t named for his Tuxedo-like appearance, but rather is an acronym for “Torvalds’ UniX” – has thrust the penguin into places a logo might not otherwise go, giving him a higher profile in the process.

The penguin factor

Ewing, a developer at Linux firm (and recent Novell acquisition) Ximian, also created Ximian’s monkey logo and still sketches as a hobby. But these days, penguins don’t fit into his repertoire.

“I don’t think I’ve done a penguin drawing in a year or two,” he says. “With the free time I spend drawing I’d usually rather draw something other than a penguin.”

Ewing says he doesn’t worry about missing out on any kind of windfall that comes with the creation of a successful corporate logo.

“I’ve never milked it really. I mean, I guess I did two book covers for Addison-Wesley that I got paid for and maybe a couple other small drawings, but that’s the sum total of anything that I’ve gotten,” he says.

He does get a kick out of running into his penguin in unexpected places.

“There have been strange times. Like for a while, some of the Boston T cars had the IBM ‘Peace, Love, Linux’ thing,” he says. “There was a time there where it was really shocking to go into, say, a Barnes & Noble and walk down the computer aisle and see lots of penguins staring out at you.”

Or how about going to a trade show and seeing a seven-foot version of your creation walking around greeting showgoers?

Sam Greenblatt, senior vice president and chief architect of Computer Associates’ Linux Technology Group, doesn’t see what’s odd about it. He donned the penguin suit at CA’s annual user conference this past summer to mingle with attendees and spread the word about Linux. Tux was part of an all-star Linux line-up that included Torvalds, John “Maddog” Hall, Larry Augustin, Jay Peretz of Oracle, Michael Evans of Red Hat and Juergen Geck of SuSe Linux.

“Tux is integral to the branding of Linux,” Greenblatt says.

“Tux brings people together,” he adds. “They love him.”

The penguin grows up

As the love for Tux grows, so does Linux’s popularity. Ewing says he doubts he would have submitted his rendition if he knew what lay in store for the open source operating system. Linux was pretty much relegated to scientific, geeky installations in 1996.

“I didn’t know how things were going to go,” he says. “That’s been the other real fun part: just watching Linux get more and more important. And then the penguin sort of goes along with it.”

After a pause, he adds: “It’s kind of interesting. I spent probably 20 or 30 hours drawing the penguin stuff, and I’ve spent four or five years writing code, and I’m still known for the penguin a lot more than I am for any of the code.”

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