“Open source” means anything and everything that can be changed/altered to suit specific needs or “just for fun”, because its origin and design is publicly available. Yes, “open source” originated in the computer age, and is associated with software, but the idea itself is old enough. When it comes to technology, open source technology, is one of the most misunderstood terms of the information age. Often enough, open source is thought of as a synonym to free by the users. In this article, let’s find out what open source means, and the major developments in open source software and hardware.
Emergence of the term “Open Source”
The free (libre) softwares we available ever since the 1960’s. In fact, it could be said that in the beginning, there was only free (libre) software. When IBM and others sold the first large-scale commercial computers, in the 1960s, they came with some software which was free (libre), in the sense that it could be freely shared among users, it came with source code, and it could be improved and modified. By the late 1960’s, however the situation regarding licensing and use, in the software industry changed. Let’s get to all these in the later part of this article, and first find out when and how the term “open source” was coined.
The group of Christine Peterson, Todd Anderson, Larry Augustin, Jon Hall, Sam Ockman, Michael Tiemann and Eric S. Raymond in the free software movement implied in the term “free software”. In January 1998, Netscape announced the release of source code for Navigator. In Reaction to this acnnouncement, Peterson, suggested “open source” at a meeting held at Palo Alto, California. Linus Torvalds gave his support the following day, and Phil Hughes backed the term in Linux Journal. Richard Stallman, the founder of the free software movement, initially seemed to adopt the term, but later changed his mind. Netscape released its source code under the Netscape Public License and later changed it to Mozilla Public License.
Raymond took the initiative to popularize the new term. He made the first public call to the free software community to adopt it in February 1998. Shortly after, he founded The Open Source Initiative(OSI) in collaboration with Bruce Perens.
The term gained further visibility through an event organized in April 1998 by technology publisher Tim O’Reilly. Originally titled the “Freeware Summit” and later known as the “Open Source Summit”, the event was made big by the attendance of leaders of many of the most important free and open-source projects, including Linus Torvalds, Larry Wall, Brian Behlendorf, Eric Allman, Guido van Rossum, Michael Tiemann, Paul Vixie, Jamie Zawinski, and Eric Raymond. At that meeting, alternatives to the term “free software” were discussed. Tiemann argued for “sourceware” as a new term, while Raymond argued for “open source”. The assembled developers took a vote, and the winner was announced at a press conference the same evening.
“Open source” has never managed to supersede entirely the older term “free software”, giving rise to the combined term free and open-source software (FOSS).
Open Source is now a certification mark owned by the Open Source Initiative (OSI). Developers of software that is intended to be freely shared and possibly improved and redistributed by others can use the Open Source trademark if their distribution terms conform to the OSI’s Open Source Definition. To summarize, the Definition model of distribution terms require that:
- The software being distributed must be redistributed to anyone else without any restriction.
- The source code must be made available (so that the receiving party will be able to improve or modify it).
- The license can require improved versions of the software to carry a different name or version from the original software.
The idea is very similar to that behind free software and the Free Software Foundation.
History of Open Source as an ‘Idea’
The sharing of technological information, which is the backbone of the open source concept predates the Internet and the personal computer considerably. In 1911, independent automaker Henry Ford won a challenge to George B. Selden that earlier enabled Seldan to monopolize the industry and force car manufacturers to adhere to their demands, or risk a lawsuit. As a result a new association (which would eventually become the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association) was formed. The new association instituted a cross-licensing agreement among all US auto manufacturers: although each company would develop technology and file patents, these patents were shared openly and without the exchange of money among all the manufacturers. By the time the US entered World War II, 92 Ford patents and 515 patents from other companies were being shared among these manufacturers, without any exchange of money (or lawsuits).
Sharing of Information in Computing
The birth of Internet in the early 1960’s is the open-sharing of Information. Early instances of the free sharing of source code include IBM’s source releases of its operating systems and other programs in the 1950s and 1960s, and the SHARE user group that formed to facilitate the exchange of software. The sharing of source code on the Internet began when the Internet was relatively primitive, with software distributed via UUCP, Usenet, IRC, and Gopher. BSD, for example, was first widely distributed by posts to comp.os.linux on the Usenet, which is also where its development was discussed. Linux followed in this model.
Open Source Software
In the beginning, there was only free (libre) software, it was just that the term open-source wasn’t coined. Proprietary software was born later, and it quickly dominated the software landscape, to the point that it is today considered as the only possible model by many (knowledgeable) people. Only recently has the software industry considered free software as an option again.
When IBM and others sold the first large-scale commercial computers, in the 1960s, they came with some software which was free (libre), in the sense that it could be freely shared among users, it came with source code, and it could be improved and modified. In the late 1960s, the situation changed after the “unbundling” of IBM software, and in mid-1970s it was usual to find proprietary software, in the sense that users were not allowed to redistribute it, that source code was not available, and that users could not modify the programs.
In late 1970s and early 1980s, two different groups were establishing the roots of the current open source software movement:
On the East Coast Richard Stallman launched the GNU Project to write a complete operating system free from constraints on use of its source code. Particular incidents that motivated this include a case where an annoying printer couldn’t be fixed because the source code was withheld from users. Stallman also published the GNU Manifesto, in 1985, to outline the GNU project’s purpose and explain the importance of free software. Another probable inspiration for the GNU project and its manifesto was a disagreement between Stallman and Symbolics, Inc. over MIT’s access to updates Symbolics had made to its Lisp machine, which was based on MIT code. Soon after the launch, he coined the term “free software” and founded the Free Software Foundation to promote the concept and a free software definition was published in February 1986. In 1989, the first version of the GNU General Public License was published. A slightly updated version 2 was published in 1991.
On the US West coast, the Computer Science Research Group (CSRG) of the University of California at Berkeley was improving the Unix system, and building lots of applications which quickly became “BSD Unix”. These efforts were funded mainly by DARPA contracts, and a dense network of Unix hackers around the world helped to debug, maintain and improve the system. During many time that software was not redistributed outside the community of holders of a Unix AT&T licence. But in the late 1980s, it was finally distributed under the “BSD licence”, one of the first open source licences. Unfortunately, at that time every user of BSD Unix also needed an AT&T Unix licence, since some parts of the kernel and several important utilities, which were needed for a usable system, were still proprietary.
Some extremely Important events in the Open Source History
One remarkable open source project of the 1980’s is TeX (a typesetting system, by Donald Knuth), which formed around it a strong community which still exists today.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, open source software continued its development, although in several relatively isolated groups. USENET arrived in 1980 was in many ways a precursor to today’s Internet forums and predated the World Wide Web by over a decade. At that time, many applications were already the best ones in their field (Unix utilities, compilers, etc.). Especially interesting is the case of the X Window System, which was one of the first cases of open source software funded by a consortium of companies.
In 1989, work began on the 386BSD. Although BSD Unix had been open source for many years and had one of the first open source licenses (the BSD license), unfortunately you also needed a separate license from AT&T to be able to use it because it included AT&T Unix code. This problem was finally fixed by William and Lynne Jolitz in 1992 when they released 386BSD (also called Jolix). In development since 1989, it was the first completely free and open source version of BSD, independent of the AT&T license. It would spawn several versions of BSD that are still in wide use today; FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD.
The Linux kernel, started by Linus Torvalds, was released as freely modifiable source code in 1991. The licence wasn’t a free-software licence, but with version 0.12 in February 1992, Torvalds relicensed the project under the GNU General Public License. Much like Unix, Torvalds’ kernel attracted the attention of volunteer programmers. Until this point, the GNU project’s lack of a kernel meant that no complete free-software operating systems existed. The development of Torvalds’ kernel closed that last gap. The combination of the almost-finished GNU operating system and the Linux kernel made the first complete free-software operating system. Among Linux distributions, Debian GNU/Linux, begun by Ian Murdock in 1993, is noteworthy for being explicitly committed to the GNU and FSF principles of free software. The Debian developers’ principles are expressed in the Debian Social Contract.
The year 1993 saw a new company Red Hat, which has made huge profit just by providing service and support on their open source Linux distributions. To give you an idea of how much buzz there was around Red Hat in the late ‘90s, when it went public in 1999, it had one of the largest first-day gains in the history of Wall Street.
Michael Widenius and David Axmark started developing MySQL in 1994 and released the first version in 1995. Over the years, MySQL has become the open source database solution of choice and is used by a huge number of companies and websites like Facebook and Wikipedia. MySQL has also, just like Red Hat did, shown how open source can be big business. In 2008, Sun paid one billion dollars for the company.
The year 1996, saw Apache taking over the web. Based on the NSCA HTTPd, one of the very first web servers, Apache has consistently been the most widely used web server software on the Internet since 1996.
In 1997, Eric Raymond published The Cathedral and the Bazaar, a reflective analysis of the hacker community and free-software principles. The paper received significant attention in early 1998 and was one factor in motivating Netscape Communications Corporation to release their popular Netscape Communicator Internet suite as free software. This code is today the basis for Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird.
When South African millionaire Mark Shuttleworth’s company, Canonical, released the Debian-based Ubuntu in 2004, few could have expected what a massive success it would become. Ubuntu quickly became the most widely used Linux distribution by far, especially on the desktop, and has brought Linux to the masses like no other distribution.
During the 1990s, other notable open source projects worth mentioning include Perl (an interpreted language with lots of libraries), XFree86 (the most widely used X11 implementation for PC-based machines), GNOME and KDE (both providing a consistent set of libraries and applications to present the casual user with an easy to use and friendly desktop environment)
Open Source Hardware
The word open source did not stay put with only software, it is now applied to the world beyond software.
Open source hardware is hardware whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design. The hardware’s source, the design from which it is made, is available in the preferred format for making modifications to it. Ideally, open source hardware uses readily-available components and materials, standard processes, open infrastructure, unrestricted content, and open-source design tools to maximize the ability of individuals to make and use hardware. Open source hardware gives people the freedom to control their technology while sharing knowledge and encouraging commerce through the open exchange of designs.
Open-source hardware projects includes computer systems and components, cameras, radio, telephony, science education, machines and tools, robotics, renewable energy, home automation, medical and biotech, automotive, prototyping, test equipment, and musical instruments.
Some of the most popular ones are, Raspberry Pi, Arduino, BugLabs(modular software and hardware platform, web-enabled, set of pre-matched components), Elphel, Inc.(A project working on cameras and imaging solutions with Free software and open hardware), I2C Interface Applications, Olimex, Open Compute Project(Specifications and design documents for the custom-built servers, racks, and other equipment used in Facebook’s data centers), PowPow, Openpicus (platform for smart sensors and Internet of things), e-puck mobile robot(an open-hardware, education oriented, mobile robot), ICub(1 metre high Humanoid Robot), The Humanois Project, OpenROV(an open source telerobotic submarine), Open Prosthetics Project(open source design of prosthetics), The RepRap Project(an open-source 3D printer/fabber) and lots more which may not fit the length of this article.
The post extended a bit too long, but I hope this article has answered your questions on what is open source, when and how it all began, the difference/relation between open source and free software, when was the term coined, major open source software and hardware projects.