This brief history illustrates the origins and major events in open source.
- Expensive, esoteric computers
- The rise of proprietary software
- Proprietary UNIX
- The debate on the fringes
- The Internet and the Bazaar
- Netscape's big move
- The Open Source Initiative
- Dot-coms and anti-Microsoft
- The current storm
To promote the values of free software, Richard Stallman created the GNU General Public License (GPL) and founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF). The GPL is infectious: any software created with free software must also be free software. Stallman calls this "copyleft" because it preserves the rights of the user not the creator.
The idea of unfettered, infectious software was too radical for most software companies. "The GPL is a political manifesto as well as a software license... This political dialogue has put some people off." (Perens, in Dibona, p. 181) Stallman and the FSF aren't hostile to businesses that "respect the users' freedom." (Stallman, in Dibona, p. 61) But most companies couldn't imagine how to build a business model on free software.
The success of Linux and the growth of the Internet focused more attention on free software. Some proponents redefined a more moderate view to appeal to the business world. This became open source.
Computer science originally meant large mainframe computers. Most software had accessible source code. It was not uncommon to receive a printed copy of a program, which had to be entered line by line. (Modern programmable calculators continue this tradition.) Software was widely shared, and programmers collaborated regardless of employer. Programmers enjoying tinkering with software and learning. The product and the process were inseparable. This was very similar to the open source model, but nobody called it that.
As computers became less expensive and more accessible, non-technical office workers and home users wanted them. In targeting these growing markets, software companies built their business models on control of their source code. Most users don't want or need access to source code, and executives and investors wanted their companies to control key assets (e.g. intellectual property). Companies sold the compiled binary as proprietary software, and kept the source code secret. In other words, they sold the product and kept the process.
The most important software on a computer is the operating system. The most powerful operating system was UNIX. UNIX was originally open source. As the computer market expanded, several companies started selling incompatible, proprietary versions of UNIX. This upset many programmers. Different programmers working for different companies could no longer collaborate as easily. They couldn't tinker and they resented the restrictions on their intellectual curiosity.
Richard Stallman was troubled by the industry transition to proprietary software. Programmers were paid for their labor but could not control their code. Users could buy a copy of a program but couldn't change or distribute it. Without the source code, a program was a "black box." Complicated user licenses prohibited opening that box. (This is not always a bad thing.) Stallman wanted all users to have true ownership of their computer through free software. Such software is free as in "free speech" (liberty).
Stallman wanted to create and exclusively use free software. He founded a project to create a free, open source operating system. Stallman called his project GNU, a recursive acronym of GNU's Not UNIX. GNU would be fast, reliable, scalable, and interoperable with UNIX. Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF) to support GNU and similar projects. The Foundation became the center of the free software community.
Stallman was afraid software companies would subvert his cause by copying and selling community-created software. The modern open source model permits this, but free software is supposed remain free. Stallman observed how software companies used restrictive end user licenses to control their products. To protect the idea and practice of free software, Stallman created the GNU Public License (GPL). The GPL is an example of "copyleft" (the opposite of copyright). Whereas most licenses restrict a user from copying or changing software, the GPL prevents anyone from restricting any use of the software.
Stallman developed a series of software tools to build GNU. Stallman's GNU C Compiler (GCC) is widely regarded as "one of the most efficient and robust compilers ever created." (Hasan, 2002) (Apple's OS X includes the GCC, more than a decade later.) The FSF distributed the GCC as part of a toolkit, as both a gift to the programming community and an invitation to join the GNU project.
As a radical idea, free software attracted and repelled many programmers and companies. But the debate was relegated to the fringes of the industry, partly because there were few examples of successful, mainstream free software. The GNU project produced many software components, but no usable kernel. An operating system needs a kernel.
A separate free software project also hoped to produce an operating system. The Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) was and still is popular with some power users, but lacks the mindshare and markets of Linux.
A Helsinki college student named Linus Torvalds was impatient with the progress on the GNU kernel. Torvalds wanted a free operating system for his own use, so he created Linux using the Free Software Foundation's development tools. Torvalds didn't expect many people to be interested. But by combining the Linux kernel with GNU components, anyone could deploy a UNIX-like operating system. Although it would take years for Linux to mature, power users started deploying "GNU/Linux."
Linux was and is a fantastic program. It's faster, more powerful, and scales larger than almost any other operating system. It's also complicated, challenging, and the graphical user interfaces are still maturing. Linux couldn't compete in the desktop market with Microsoft Windows and Apple Macintosh. So it started to spread everywhere else, and continues to spread today. Its success made Torvalds a celebrity. He was less radical in his rhetoric than Stallman. Linux succeeded as simply good code.
As the Internet exploded into the mainstream, open source projects like sendmail, bind, and Apache grew in popularity. Today, Apache is the dominant Web server solution, and it runs under Linux (as well as Microsoft Windows and Apple Macintosh). For this and other reasons, the rapid growth of the Internet and the rising popularity of open source software are interdependent. More: "The Internet and open source"
The Internet and "e-business" demanded new, cutting-edge solutions. Linux, Apache, and other open source software could outperform costly proprietary UNIX or Microsoft solutions. This success in the "backend" puzzled people. How could a community-created product be more powerful and reliable than proprietary solutions?
To help explain this phenomenon, programmer Eric Raymond wrote an essay called The Cathedral & the Bazaar. In Raymond's so-called cathedral, a leader sets the goals, coerces programmers to participate, uses extrinsic rewards (e.g. money, promotions), and controls the product and its secrets. In the bazaar, a leader shares a vision, invites programmers, rewards their contributions with fame and gratitude, and shares the product as open source. Raymond emphasizes the fame reward, using the theory of gift/reputation culture to explain programmers' eagerness to work hard on code and then give it away.
Raymond's bazaar was clearly inspired by Stallman's copyleft: elevating the principles of community over selfishness. But where copyleft prevents a company from using community-developed resources in a proprietary product, Raymond didn't foreclose on that possibility.
Raymond's bazaar helps explain why a programmer would work hard improving software, then give it away for free. Of course, most educators are generous with their work and ideas, so the bazaar may be less puzzling to them than to companies. More: "The open source community"
Meanwhile, Netscape and Microsoft were battling for market share. The companies sold competing, proprietary Web browsers: Navigator and Explorer. Both also offered Web editing and hosting solutions, and tried to control the evolution of HTML with secret formats and protocols. (Microsoft calls these "extensions.") For a time, there were Explorer and Netscape versions of the same Web pages.
Explorer held a significant but minority market share. So Microsoft changed their business model to focus on Windows, Frontpage, Web server software, and Web hosting. Microsoft bundled (and later integrated) Explorer with its Windows operating system, and offered it as a free download. Netscape had no operating system or office suite products to fall back on, and it would be years before the Justice Department finished investigating Microsoft's alleged anti-trust behavior. To prevent Microsoft from controlling the browser market (and HTML), Netscape chose a surprise strategy: they "open sourced" Navigator. They mentioned Raymond's bazaar as an influence.
Netscape planned to create an open source browser called Mozilla. Soon after Netscape announced the Mozilla project, America Online (AOL) bought Netscape. As an Internet service provider, AOL competed with Microsoft's MSN Internet service. In light of that competition, Raymond wrote an open letter to AOL:
The Mozilla project proceeded from Netscape's understanding that Internet Explorer threatened their server business. If Microsoft were able to establish a monopoly lock on the browser market, they could leverage that into effective control of the HTTP/HTML protocol; from there it would be a short step to effectively crippling any competitor's web servers. (Raymond, 1998)
AOL continued to support the Mozilla project.
At the same time, Raymond, Bruce Perens, and other proponents launched a broader strategy. Where Stallman and the Free Software Foundation had argued from principles like user rights, the new Open Source Initiative (OSI) would tout better code and untapped profits. Raymond later wrote:
It seemed clear... that the term "free software" had done our movement tremendous damage... Most of it came from... the strong association of the term "free software" with hostility to intellectual property rights, communism, and other ideas hardly likely to endear themselves to an MIS manager. ... Our success... would depend on replacing the negative FSF stereotypes with positive stereotypes of our own -- pragmatic tales, sweet to managers' and investors' ears, of higher reliability and lower costs and better features. (Raymond, in Dibona p. 212)
While many companies had started with or changed to open source business models, Netscape was the largest and most ambitious conversion yet. Investors were curious about open source. Numerous start-up companies tried to harness the potential of open source in the "dot-com" frenzy. In many cases, these companies launched with inflated IPO's and wild predictions, followed by quarterly deficits and insufficient community support. (Open source projects flourish through volunteer work and momentum, which can be difficult to foster.)
Meanwhile, some businesses and governments were troubled by the implications of Microsoft Window's dominance of the operating system market. Microsoft had seized the market during the transition from elite computing to mainstream use. As the Internet triggered a new transition in computing, some technology decisionmakers were ready to try something different.
While Linux had begun as an alternative to proprietary UNIX, now it seemed the best alternative to Microsoft Windows. The Open Source Initiative had muffled the idea of copyleft and cast themselves as business-friendly revolutionaries. Where Stallman had argued from his principles, the Open Source Initiative had the examples of Linux, Apache, and Mozilla, and the support of Linus Torvalds, AOL/Netscape, and more.
Clearly, open source software is reaching the mainstream. The debate is stronger than ever, and the ubiquity of the Internet and publicity of key open source projects has changed the scope. Microsoft and its business allies continue to disparage open source, creating a vivid conflict in marketing, the media, and mindshare. Apple builds their OS X on Darwin, a derivation of open source BSD. IBM, Sun, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Oracle, and many more are investing in open source. National governments are considering policies and legislation promoting open source.
Like a silent storm, open source runs much of the Internet and the Web (especially Web servers and gateways). It's making inroads on servers, desktops, mobile devices, everywhere. While Stallman, Torvalds, Raymond, and others are strongly influential in the future of open source, it has become a global phenomenon with an unclear future and uncertain implications.
For more information, see: "Links: History & Philosophy"
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