GOING WAY BACK, pretty much all software was effectively open source. That's because it was the preserve of a small number of scientists and engineers who shared and adapted each other's code (or punch cards) to suit their particular area of research. Later, when computing left the lab for the business, commercial powerhouses such as IBM, DEC and Hewlett-Packard sought to lock in their IP by making software proprietary and charging a hefty license fee for its use.
The precedent was set and up until five years ago, generally speaking, that was the way things went. Proprietary software ruled the roost and even in the enlightened environs of the INQUIRER office mention of open source was invariably accompanied by jibes about sandals and stripy tanktops, basement-dwelling geeks and hairy hippies. But now the hippies are wearing suits, open source is the default choice of business and even the arch nemesis Microsoft has declared its undying love for collaborative coding.
But how did we get to here from there? Join INQ as we take a trip along the open source timeline, stopping off at points of interest on the way, and consulting a few folks whose lives or careers were changed by open source software.
The GNU project
The GNU Project (for GNU's not Unix - a typically in-jokey open source monicker, it's recursive don't you know?) was created by archetypal hairy coder and the man widely regarded as the father of open source Richard Stallman in 1983. GNU aimed to replace the proprietary UNIX operating system with one composed entirely of free software - meaning code that could be used or adapted without having to seek permission.
Stallman also started the Free Software Foundation to support coders, litigate against those such as Cisco who broke the license terms and defend open-source projects against attack from commercial vendors. And in his spare time, Stallman also wrote the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL), a "copyleft" license, which means that derivative work can only be distributed under the same license terms in 1989. Now on its third iteration GPLv3, it remains the most popular way of licensing open source software. Under the terms of the GPL, code may be used for any purpose, including commercial uses, and even as a tool for creating proprietary software.
Amendment: Richard Stallman asked us to provide the following clarification.
I have never advocated "open source", because it rejects the ethical core of what I stand for - free (libre) software. Free as in freedom that is. See my article Why open source misses the point of free software.
Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption was created in 1991 by anti-nuclear activist Phil Zimmerman, who was rightly concerned about the security of online bulletin boards where he conversed with fellow protesters. Zimmerman decided to give his invention out for free. Unfortunately for him, it was deployed outside of his native USA, a fact that nearly landed him with a prison sentence, digital encryption being classed as a munition and therefore subject to export regulations. However, the ever-resourceful Mr Zimmerman challenged the case against him by reproducing his source code in the form of a decidedly-undigital hardback book which users could scan using OCR. Common sense eventually won the day and PGP now underpins much modern communications technology including chat, email and VPNs.
"PGP represents the democratisation of privacy," commented Anzen Data CIO and developer of security software, Gary Mawdsley.
In 1991 Finnish student and misanthrope Linus Torvalds created
a Unix-like kernel based on some educational operating system software called MINIX as a hobby project. He opened up his project so that others could comment. And from that tiny egg, a mighty penguin grew.
Certainly, he could never have never anticipated being elevated to the position of open-source Messiah. Unlike Stallman, Torvalds, who has said many times that he's not a "people person" or a natural collaborator (indeed recent comments have made him seem more like a dictator - albeit a benevolent one), was not driven by a vision or an ideology. Making Linux open source was almost an accident.
"I did not start Linux as a collaborative project, I started it for myself," Torvalds said in a TED talk. "I needed the end result but I also enjoyed programming. I made it publicly available but I had no intention to use the open-source methodology, I just wanted to have comments on the work."
Nevertheless, like Stallman, the Torvalds name is pretty much synonymous with open source and Linux quickly became the server operating system of choice, also providing the basis of Google's Android and Chrome OS.
"Linux was and is an absolute game-changer," says Chris Cooper of compliance software firm KnowNow. "It was the first real evidence that open could be as good as paid for software and it was the death knell of the OS having a value that IT teams would fight over. It also meant that the OS was no longer a key driver of architectural decisions: the application layer is where the computing investment is now made."
Red Hat, established in 1995, was among the first proper enterprise open source companies. Red Hat went public in 1999 with a highly successful IPO. Because it was willing to bet big on the success of open source at a time when others were not, Red Hat is the most financially buoyant open source vendor, achieving a turnover of $1bn 13 years later. Red Hat's business model revolves around offering services and certification around its own Linux distribution plus middleware and other open source enterprise software.
"Red Hat became successful by making open source stable, reliable and secure for the enterprise," said Jan Wildeboer, open source affairs evangelist at the firm.
Bad for shareholders, mildly good for the planet
YouTube on the Tube
Claims that it hasn't ever actually worked