‘Software is meant to be free.’ A Brief History of Open Source

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After its inception in the late 70’s and early 80’s and the following revolution in software development, the open source software has become widely accepted over the last 40 years.

Initially, programmers could not come up with a good name for such an unusual idea or its possible applications. However, it soon became widely used in software design and development of many popular and stable software solutions. This text gives an overview of the history of open source software along with the free software vs. open source movement.

In 1971, Richard Stallman, a young software engineer from Harvard, joined MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in a bid to contribute to the development of computing platforms. However, a couple of years later, proprietary software took over the software market with many talented MIT developers joining privately held tech companies. By the early 80’s, MIT AI Lab where Stallman worked became extinct as it lost most of its talented developers to the booming software market.

Stallman was saddened by these changes. He did some research and found that the customers were in need of the software they could debug, fix, improve, and modify rather than just operate. When a program is controlled solely by its developer, its users are deprived of their right to a total control over it. As Stallman realized, that was what AI Lab failed to incorporate in its software development strategies.

The Advent of Free Software Movement

Based on his analysis, Stallman started his GNU Project in 1984. First, he created a compiler known as GCC and a couple of operating systems. Stallman believes that the GNU Project was the major stepping stone for the evolution of free software community.

According to Stallman, ‘software is meant to be free but in terms of accessibility and not price.’ So, in 1985, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) was founded. In accordance with FSF policies, software is considered free if the users have the freedom to:

  • run software as they desire,
  • modify software to suit their needs,
  • update copies, either free of charge or for a token,
  • distribute modified versions, for the benefit of the users in the community.

FSF objective was to duplicate UNIX OS in such a way that a new system would allow users to have total control of it; this was achieved in the 90s. Thanks to Stallman’s innovative ideas, there was an intense growth in the number of developers who used GNU, and many of them offered assistance with bugs they would detect. Stallman also started incorporating other programmers’ source codes into GNU. At the same time, to ensure IP protection of his software, Stallman developed the concept of copyleft.

Traditionally, software is protected using copyright and licensing terms, which close its source code and prevent it from being modified. Stallman described the concept of copyleft, according to which a program is first copyrighted, then, additional distribution terms are added. Everyone is given the legal rights to use, redistribute, or modify the program’s code without changing the distribution terms. The copyleft concept made the source code legally linked with the freedom of use.

Proprietary Software vs. Open Source Software

When the concept of open source just appeared, it started a continued fight between the proponents of proprietary software and open source software advocates, which still goes no. Large market players such as Oracle and Microsoft considered open source as a threat to their proprietary IP and, in the bigger picture, their business model. Today many companies release proprietary software as well as open source projects, which has definitely regained its popularity in the late 90’s and early 00’s.

Open Source Software Movement

After Mozilla project was released by Netscape in 1998, a group of programmers lead by Eric Raymond gathered in Palo Alto to pick an alternative name for free software. After many discussions, Christine Peterson suggested the term ‘open source’. According to the activists, the profound difference between open source software and proprietary software was the availability of the source code to users.

In 1999, Red Hat and Linux showed tremendous growth, which lead to commonness and greater awareness of open source projects. Same year, IBM publicly announced its interest in Linux and invested $1 bln. in their future projects. In 2000, Microsystems developed OpenOffice.org and released the source code of its StarOffice Suite platform.

Massive investments from the industry giants such as IBM and Sun Microsystems have resulted in the rocket-fast adoption of open source in the current tech industry.

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