What is "Open Source"?

If you’re in the tech industry, even as a code newbie, you’ve probably heard the term “open source.” And more than likely, you’ve used open source tools to code and learn to code. But open source isn’t a new concept. It started some forty years ago, back in the 1970's with the free software movement and a man named Richard Stallman.

Stallman was a programmer at MIT, who worked with artificial intelligence and was a part of the original “Hacker” movement. Hacker, at least originally, did not mean someone who breaks into servers, it means a programmer who enjoyed playful cleverness. The hacker community at MIT freely shared programs, and enjoyed the community that came from openly sharing what they learned and what they created. But when new computers were brought in containing more and more software that had been built under proprietary licences, their idyllic situation began to collapse.

As proprietary software became more and more common, in part because of people like Bill Gates, who from the start insisted that proprietary licensing was the way to go, a lot of the early, free sharing community spirit began to die out. Stallman was frustrated by this, and decided to create a completely free operating system. This free didn’t mean it was free of cost, but free as in freedom. This is an important distinction. Think of it as “free speech” not “free beer”. A developer can write a free program and monetize it more traditionally by selling it, like how the tech company Canonical sells official copies of Ubuntu on install discs, even though you can legally get the software by downloading it from their website. But rather than selling the product itself , often times it makes more sense to monetize it in other ways like providing services that support the product. . A great example of that is MongoDB, an open source database that sells premium customer support and services to big companies.

In 1983, Stallman founded the GNU project, launching the free software movement. He strongly believed that people have the right to share, that this right is worth defending, and resolved that he would not continue using computers in good conscience unless there was a free option. So he began building pieces of an operating system, many of which are used today by thousands of people. More people joined. In 1985, Stallman founded the Free Software Society, a group dedicated to protecting the free software movement and moving the GNU operating system forward, with the hope of creating a fully free operating system.

By the start of the 90's, the GNU system contained all of the programs needed for a complete operating system. But they were missing a key component , the kernel. The Kernel is what communicates directly with a machine’s hardware, converting tasks that a program wants to complete into machine code that the computer’s hardware can understand. Around this time, Linus Torvalds had developed a kernel called Linux, and by 1992, released it as free software under the GNU General Public Licence, a software licence that the GNU project created to protect free software from being used for proprietary purposes. Linux was plugged into the GNU system, and the GNU/Linux operating system was born. Today, this system is used by millions of people all around the world, in many different forms.

That’s where it all started, but the term “open source” did not come around until the late 90s. Open source, a more literal term meaning that the source code is open to everyone, was adopted as a marketing tool by those who felt that the term “free software” was too difficult to sell to corporate business owners, with all its ties to concepts like community and ethical behaviour. As Michael Tiemann, former president of the open source initiative, put it: "dump the moralizing and confrontational attitude that had been associated with 'free software' in the past and sell the idea strictly on the same pragmatic, business-case grounds”. Open source is very good for businesses, for many reasons. A complete list would be another article by itself, but one of the early selling points was simply cost. It can be a lot more affordable for a large company to go with open source software than proprietary, which could cost a company millions of dollars a year.

Christine Peterson of the Foresight Institute originally suggested the term “open source” to a small group of programmers and business owners, who were specifically looking to find a way to promote the free software model without the moral considerations that Stallman and the Free Software Foundation were always voicing. The group loved the term, and the next day, work on a document called the Open Source Definition began.

The Open Source Definition was basically a updated version of older documents with the words “open source” inserted, but it was successful in its aim. Over time, free and open source tools became an integral part of corporations’ tech setup. In 1995 the Apache web server, which is free and open source, was released, and quickly became the world’s most used web server. This was a big boost for open source, as Apache was often run on GNU/Linux machines. As the internet grew, powered by open source software and machines, so did the open source movement, powered by the success of the internet and the open source software running it. Apache is now the second most commonly used web server, only having been recently replaced as number one by nginx, which is also free and open source software.

Free and open source software emerged in the 90's as a powerful, disruptive force. It challenged the attitudes and ideas of mega corporations like Microsoft, whose founder Bill Gates had written a contemptible paper in the late 70's condemning the act of sharing software. A very influential essay was published in the late 90's called “the Cathedral and the Bazaar”, which helped shape the future of the important open source browser Firefox. It was that essay that led developers at Netscape to release the source code for their browser, and form the Mozilla foundation. And then there are the modern open source programming languages that got their start in the 90's, such as ruby, python, php, perl, javascript, and more, which currently power a massive amount of the worlds web site and web applications. WordPress alone, written in php, powers almost 20% of the web.

Today open source software is everywhere, in tons of different forms and devices. Systems using the Linux kernel power not only the GNU/Linux servers, desktops, and laptops of the world, but also cell phones tablets and other devices in the “internet of things”. The founder of Linux also created the open source version control system Git, released in 2005, and a few years later a project called Github was started, which allows developers to collaborate over the internet on free and open source projects using Git to retrieve code, change it or improve it, and push the code back up. This makes the ideal of the free software movement a reality for hundreds of thousands of developers every day. With 75% of the web being served up by open source software and almost all of the top programming languages being open source, it’s clear that it has become the dominant model of the future.