A Brief History Of Open Source

Richard Stallman, the Free Software Movement, and the beginnings of Open Source

Collaboration was king in the software world when Richard Stallman joined MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1971 as a freshman at Harvard University.

Just as ‘sharing recipes is as old as cooking’, software development at the lab was a communal effort amongst colleagues. Stallman fit like a glove with the hacker ethos of the lab, and worked on TECO, early Emacs, and the Lisp machine operating system (among other things) during the 1970s.

Unfortunately, good times at the AI Lab wouldn’t last forever. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, manufacturers increasingly copyrighted their technologies, withheld source code, and required licensed use of software. Proprietary software took over market share in the world of technology.

By the early 80’s, the MIT AI Lab would shut down. NDA’s had become commonplace, collaboration dwindled, and the lab lost many talented developers to private companies running proprietary software.

Richard Stallman was not pleased.

He asked himself a simple question. What does society need?

What does society need? It needs information that is truly available to its citizens — for example, programs that people can read, fix, adapt, and improve, not just operate. But what software owners typically deliver is a black box that we can’t study or change.
Society also needs freedom. When a program has an owner, the users lose freedom to control part of their own lives.
And, above all, society needs to encourage the spirit of voluntary cooperation in its citizens. When software owners tell us that helping our neighbors in a natural way is “piracy”, they pollute our society’s civic spirit.
This is why we say that free software is a matter of freedom, not price.
Richard Stallman, Why Software Should Not Have Owners

Free Software Movement

From the above ethos, Stallman started the GNU Project starting in 1984. The GNU Project would create a free operating system (“free speech, not free beer”). Stallman believed this was the key stepping stone to building a free software community.

Software was meant to be “free,” not in terms of price, but in terms of accessibility. This mission began by creating a free operating system, entirely open to the community.

In 1985, the Free Software Foundation was formed to house funding for the GNU Project. To this day, it holds the four following rules to define whether a program is free software.

Software is considered free if you, the user, has the freedom to:

  • Run the program as you wish, for any purpose.
  • Modify the program to suit your needs. (To make this freedom effective in practice, you must have access to the source code, since making changes in a program without having the source code is exceedingly difficult.)
  • Redistribute copies, either gratis or for a fee.
  • Distribute modified versions of the program, so that the community can benefit from your improvements.

The GNU Project eventually combined with Linux in the early 1990s. The free operating system Stallman envisioned, nearly a decade prior, was finally created from the (non-trivial) combination of the two projects. Linux (or “GNU/Linux”, as free software maximalists say) now has the largest installed base of all general-purpose operating systems. More on Linux later in this series in Part III, OSS Giants & Their Impact.

The Open Source Movement

In 1997, Eric Raymond, a free software advocate, penned The Cathedral and The Bazaar, comparing the development styles of the GNU Project and the Linux Project, before they were combined. The two models:

  • The Cathedral (GNU Emacs): Source code is made by a small group of developers, distributed freely with each software release.
  • The Bazaar (Linux kernel): Source code is developed over the Internet, in public.

In 1998, not long after Eric Raymond penned his essay, Netscape decided to open source the code for Netscape Communicator, heavily influenced by the bazaar approach. From Eric Raymond, himself:

Eric Hahn, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Netscape, emailed me shortly (after the release of the source code): “On behalf of everyone at Netscape, I want to thank you for helping us get to this point in the first place. Your thinking and writings were fundamental inspirations to our decision.’’
The following week I flew out to Silicon Valley at Netscape’s invitation for a day-long strategy conference (on 4 Feb, 1998) with some of their top executives and technical people. We designed Netscape’s source-release strategy and license together.

Five years later, the open sourcing of this code had resulted in another browser — completely open source and free: Mozilla Firefox. Firefox went on to be one of the most popular browsers of the 2000s.

The Open Source movement takes off 🚀

Fueled by the early success of Netscape’s experiment, Eric Raymond founded the Open Source Initiative (OSI) to grow the open source community.

Open source enables a development method for software that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process. The promise of open source is higher quality, better reliability, greater flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in. — OSI

Proprietary Software vs. Open Source Software

In the early years, the battle between proprietary software and open source software was contentious. Bigger technology players, like Oracle and Microsoft, viewed the Open Source alternatives as threats to their stranglehold on their respective markets (indeed, they were). Open source alternatives to proprietary software cropped up in all aspects of software.

“Open Source Software vs. Proprietary Software” by Singh, Bansal, and Jha

Throughout the years, many debates ensued on the pros and cons of the two development approaches. Though costs are much lower for open-source software, prompt service is not guaranteed. Open source software can be more disorganized compared to crisp documentation for proprietary software. Innovation is better served in the public eye of open-source.

Though these debates continue today, a simple fact became clear over time: open-source softwares are firmly seated at the table next to their proprietary counterparts.

Open Source Today

Over the past 20 years, the open-source movement has navigated the path from outsider to mainstay. The OSS community is vibrant and active, worldwide. A 2010 survey showed that 98% of enterprises use open-source software.

As this story shows, the open source community stands on the shoulders of the Free Software Movement which preceded. At Gitcoin, we are proud to continue the efforts of both movements in attempts to build a more open, free society through code.

Recommended Further Reading / Citations


This post is Part I in a series of posts by the Gitcoin team entitled “Grow Open Source,” exploring the intersection of Open Source and Blockchain, and the history which led us to today.

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