Tech history 101

Know your history — Open Source’s software freedom movement

JAXenter Editorial Team
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© Shutterstock / Inspiring (modified)

Welcome to our History 101 series! This week, we explore open source. How did Richard Stallman’s wild ideals about free software grow to become the defining ethos of the entire internet? Open your textbooks to chapter three; class is in session!

We’ve spent the last two weeks exploring some of the foundational technologies that keep the internet up and running. Our tech history series continues this week with open source.

Infamously dubbed a “cancer” by Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer in 2001, open source has come a long way from the wild and free hacker years into honest respectability. Open source makes the internet run, from GitHub to Stack Overflow and any number of tools, frameworks, IDE, and languages. But how has this free philosophy grown to be such an integral part of the modern internet?

An ethos of freedom

Computer science may have started life as a US Defense project, but it quickly moved into the world of academia. Academia is all about the free sharing of information – the polar opposite of the cold war mentality towards innovation and development.

Early computer science researchers and academics shared freely in the early 1970s. UNIX, the great-granddaddy of all open source languages, started life as a joint collaboration between AT&T, General Electric, and MIT.

However, times changed as NDAs and proprietary locks on software became more and more common. Companies began to copyright their code, keeping source code private from computer scientists, and even requiring software licenses.

Did you know? The programming language Ada was developed in 1980 by the US Department of Defense. It’s still used today and helps run the subways in Paris, London, Hong Kong and New York City.

Richard Stallman, who had cut his teeth at the MIT AI Lab while studying in Boston, began to think there was a better way.

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 StallmanWhy Software Should Not Have Owners

Stallman and other early open source founders developed a whole new philosophy around digital item in the 1980s. After all, software wasn’t like a sandwich or a book; it could be copied and shared an infinite number of times. A program’s user should be able to muck around with the insides and copy and change it to suit their needs.

SEE ALSO: The Commons Clause vs. Open Source controversy, explained

Linux is not a cancer. It’s a Virgo.

The free software movement took off in the 1980s. Most of this time was free of any kinds of license, although 1989 saw the introduction of the copyleft GNU General Public License.

Copyleft became one of the defining features of open source: developers could use, copy, distribute, and modify the software covered by the license. However, if they made any changes to the source code, they had to share their developments for the modified source code as well as the binaries.

Between the copyleft movement and the internet, it was only a matter of time for the rise of collaborative open source community in the 1990s. Linus Torvalds developed the Linux kernel, making it possible for “hardware to talk to software”. No need for Windows or MacOS; Linux paved the way for open operating systems.

Did you know? Christine Peterson coined the phrase “open source” on February 3, 1998.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, the big four open source stack of Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP grew more and more popular. Proprietary software companies became considerably cranky and somewhat litigious, rightly seeing the growth of open source cut into their profits.

This is where that “cancer” comment comes into context. Just before the dotcom bubble burst in 2001, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told the Chicago Sun-Times that “Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches.”

Ballmer dismissed open source as a corrosive poison to proprietary software: use just a little in your stack and your entire software would fall into darkness. (That’s the dark side, Ballmer, not Ubuntu.)

SEE ALSO: Open source: The next 20 years

Open source the future

However, as corporations were fighting a losing battle against open source, consumers and users alike were flocking towards free software in the 2000s. Mozilla Firefox became the browser of the decade; Linux runs almost every server in the world.

Today, open source is everywhere. It runs our phones, our servers, our IoT toys and big data projects. A record 98% of companies reported in 2010 that they use open source tools in their businesses. And frankly, we’re a little concerned about that 2%.

Open source makes the modern internet go round. If that isn’t a success story, what is?

Nonetheless, open source’s widespread appeal doesn’t mean it’s overcome every hurdle. Funding is still an issue for many projects, even though the free in “free software” referred to movement and not price. Additionally, external barriers are keeping a diverse crew of developers from fully joining the open source community.

That said, open source has come a long way in the past 40 years. Who knows how it will develop in the future?


Miss a week of class? We’ve got your make-up work right here. Check out other chapters in our Know Your History series!

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