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Open Source Software: 20 Years and Counting

Ross Kelly


Open Source Software: 20th Anniversary

The Open Source Initiative celebrates 20 years of innovation and ingenuity this month; a visionary framework for the future of software development and boundary breaking community collaboration.

When Christine Peterson coined the term ‘open source’ in February 1998, she may not have initially realised just what she had done. A vision of the future of software development and the label that accompanied it would define a generation.

A seed was planted; One that would eventually grow and flourish to become a solution to the restrictive nature of the web, provide a public platform for innovation and dominate our digital lives.

This act was but the first flick of the domino, and the two decades to follow can be described as a whirlwind of progress. Open source software is woven deep into the fabric of the internet; operating system Linux, for example, runs the staggering proportion of the web, including every Android device on earth – what started as a hippy vision for the web now runs our world.

The value of open source cannot be overstated, but its meteoric rise wasn’t without obstacles; reaching these dizzying heights took a long time.

Pain and toil, with a dash of idealism brought the global tech scene to this point, and it started with a fundamental idea; freedom.

Going Global

When Netscape made the decision to release its source Netscape Communicator 4.0 source code under a free software-style license, the seemingly unthinkable happened – a significant player in the 90’s software industry was allowing free access to their code. Professionals, hobbyists or simply anyone with an interest were being granted access to the deep innards of their product.

In an industry environment steeped in secrecy, where the wicked witch of proprietary rights stifled innovation, this was huge – and a debate on the path ahead was needed.

First, however, we have to see where and how it all began.

Humble Beginnings

For anyone unfamiliar with the history of the open source movement, it truly began in the stuffy offices of software developers in the 1970′s. The free software movement was based firmly on the principal that users should be able to interact, alter and share programs in a transparent, public sphere.

On the surface, it appeared to be a vision of an unattainable, utopian future; the web’s Woodstock.

Almost like hippies congregating around a solitary guitar player, draped in vintage and bursting with ideas, software developers such as Richard Stallman or Linus Torvalds were jammin’ – and their music was revolutionary.

Stallman, the pioneering figure of the ‘free software’ movement began working on the GNU Operating System, a Unix modification that would allow users to freely access software and do with it what they will; the ultimate tool in a free software environment.

Unix dates back to the late 1960’s and for many years it was the go-to operating system for businesses around the globe. It came with a catch, however; it was owned by US telecommunications firm AT&T and could only be run on high-end devices.

For your everyday computer geek, this simply wasn’t available, and so Stallman began to rewrite the code to make it available for all.

By 1991, Stallman collaborated with legendary software developer Linus Torvalds to finalise the project. What was needed was a ‘kernel’ – the fundamental core of an operating system which essentially translates the input from your keyboard, mouse or touchscreen device into a language the hardware can understand.

Linux was born, and very quickly developers began to use the Linux kernel to develop their own operating systems. This sparked a floury of variants and offshoots of the GNU/Linux operating system. A revolution was gaining traction; thousands of people collaborating and developing.

The dream was becoming a reality.

With a growing movement, the next steps had to be taken very carefully. Standing on the precipise of major industry change, the right image had to be cultivated.

Marketing The Movement

Fast forward several years to when Christine Peterson travelled to California to discuss the Netscape situation, and a debate was raging among the leading figures of the free software movement. Just how can we market this move as a positive step for software development?

Anyone involved in the free software movement agreed on the fundamental ideals behind it – albeit with differing views on its future. Offering everyone the chance to access and modify software was the goal – but this was also about making open source software appealing to businesses. It didn’t have to remain the rebellious teenager of the software scene, it could aid business and in turn fuel innovation.

With everyone involved from major brands to amateur enthusiasts, what’s not to love about the idea behind it all? It’s open, modern, progressive.

What stood in the way of the real revolution was how it could be perceived. That word, that solitary term, ‘free’, had negative connotations. For individuals, many initially questioned their role in a paid capacity; ‘How can I contribute yet still be paid’ was a common question raised.

Brands in the tech scene questioned the motives behind this move as well. Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer, would later compare Linux to cancer for what he believed public licensing did to intellectual property rights. A bold statement (and rather reactionary) but it speaks volumes on just how groundbreaking this was and how companies perceived open source software as a threat to profit and in-house development.

The Right Label

Stallman had long maintained – and continues to do so – that the “free stands for freedom” but nonetheless it concerned corporate types.

Like kids in the playground, major companies often refuse to share their toys. In 1998 one could not possibly expect multi-billion dollar firms to part with their coveted source code – It was inconceivable.

Shifting away from proprietary software, it was claimed, would signal the death of many major brands (many of whom still exist and continue to grow today) and so the stakes were high. They had to be persuaded that this was a move that could benefit them, not harm them.

Eric S. Raymond, who was involved in the Netscape situation and a figure in the open source movement, wrote “we have a problem with the term ‘free software’, itself, not the concept.”

Adding, “there’s now a chance we can make serious gains in the mainstream business world without compromising our ideals and commitment to technical excellence.”

Peterson shared the view that the focus had to be taken away from the economic implications and placed firmly in the values at stake, and in a blog post noted:

“The problem with the main earlier label, “free software” was not its political connotations, but that – to newcomers – its seeming focus on price is distracting.

“A term was needed that focuses on the key issue of source code.”

Days of frantic phone-calls and discussion resulted in an agreement on a label for the movement. ‘Open source’ was chosen for its seemingly neutral, calming nature. Earlier terms such as ‘freely distributable’ and ‘cooperatively developed’ were deemed too partisan and potentially harmful to the image of free software.

Open source was born, and a call went out to the global tech industry – the future was here. Shortly after the term was coined, the Open Source Initiative was formed and one of its visionary founders, Bruce Perens, adapted the Free Software Guidelines, thus creating the Open Source Definition.

To this day, the Open Source Initiative continues to champion free software and an open, inclusive culture in the tech industry.

Modern Influence & Application

The importance of open source software is huge, and its value is clear as day. Not only businesses benefit from this; anyone using technology does.

Because much of the early development of the internet was built on open source technology – like Linux or the Apache web server application – the internet both relies on and benefits from open source. Can you imagine the internet in any other shape or form as it is?

Linux lurks behind the scenes, quietly running our world and often not gaining the recognition it deserves. It powers the apps we use and runs the webpages we visit. Every time you chat to friends, browse Facebook or play video games you are benefiting from open source software.

Android realised the value in open source software and incorporated it into its devices in the late noughties, and in 2017 Google announced that the Android operating system has over two billion monthly users – this speaks volumes about the influence and extent of open source’s reach.

Microsoft has embraced open source through its Azure Cloud. The one-time ardent opponent of open source software now actively welcomes it and values its place in development

Apple has also adopted open source, and in October 2017 revealed that users can download its ARM-optimised source code. The iOS and macOS operating systems both run on a Unix-based core – named Darwin. Your Apple Watch, Apple TV – also running on variants of Darwin. You cannot escape it.

These three major brands are but a few in a myriad of companies worldwide that utilise open source for business purposes, and as companies continue to develop and produce new products, so too do they welcome open source.

Although open source has caused a flood of innovation and development over the last twenty years, the true legacy of the movement comes in the form of its principles, which still retain their relevance today. As our lives become increasingly digitized, the basic values of the open source movement become even more important.

Free software and the values associated with it become a crucial element as we navigate an online world full of content, products and people.

Our privacy and security still matter – it always has – but so too does a transparent digital environment that values collaboration and community endeavour. You can’t escape the headlines on security in 2018, and although initial concerns regarding security were raised, the twenty years since have proven that it is a viable system and one that is highly secure.

The reality is that through open source software, security is collectively assured. The more people who can see and test code, the more likely it is that bugs or flaws will be caught and fixed quickly. An example of this can be seen in 2010 – when Coverity discovered that the Android OS was vulnerable to hackers and malware – this highlights the advantages of open source; its transparency is its security.

Moving Forward 

When the decision was made to follow the label open source, a rift opened up within the free software movement. Classical adherents of the traditional values – Stallman in particular – viewed the Open Source Initiative as pandering to corporate interests, concerned purely with the marketability of the idea, and less with the social and ethical values.

The debate still rages on, in 2016 Richard Stallman posted on the GNU website that “open source misses the point of free software” and that “supporters of open source considered the term a marketing campaign for free software…while not raising issues of right and wrong that they might not like to hear.”

Disagreements aside, the value of open source to the tech industry in the past twenty years is incredible. Fuelling a generation of thinkers and tinkerers and a whirlwind of technological advances, it will continue to grow and shape our digital future.

In an increasingly digitized world, the core values of the movement are ones that we should consider as we move forward.

Happy Birthday Open Source, from DIGIT.

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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