by John McDonnell
Early computer hardware in the 50s/60s came bundled with source code, often developed in universities where free sharing of information was normal practice. By the late 1970s, companies, realising that there was a big profit opportunity being missed, had started making the software proprietary, keeping the source code to themselves and charging for the binary code.
In 1983 Richard Stallman published the GNU manifesto, sometimes considered the bible of open source advocates. GNU stood for ‘GNUs not UNIX’, something of a joke referring to the proprietary UNIX operating systems at the time. Stallman advocated that software and source code, like other forms of information, should be free and that this was part of a wider economic philosophy aiming towards a post scarcity world where people would work at what they enjoyed, rather than needing to work. Stallman and others then created the GNU public license, which basically says that to be covered under the license the software’s source code must be free and publicly available and you must allow it to be copied and modified, with the proviso that any such modifications must themselves be open source and free.This kick-started the GNU project to create a free operating system which came to fruition in the early 1990s with the incorporation of a free OS kernel by Linus Torvalds, creating GNU/Linux. It’s a little unfair to just call it Linux as the GNU project had already created the utilities and programs around the kernel.
During the 1990s usage of GNU/Linux exploded, particularly to host web servers servicing the rapidly growing Internet. Most of those servers used the open source Apache web server running on a GNU/Linux operating system. The proprietary UNIX operating systems (AIX, Solaris, HPUX etc) went into decline, and today occupy very limited niches. At the same time Microsoft Windows started becoming dominant on personal computers, and in later years the open source debate was often simply referred to as ‘Microsoft Windows versus Linux’.In the realm of servers GNU/Linux got the upper hand over Microsoft, while in the case of personal computers like desktops and laptops its open source nature caused some issues. With anyone able to tweak the operating system to suit their particular preferences, GNU/Linux fragmented into hundreds of derivatives. This also fragmented efforts to develop a user-friendly interface which less technical users would find consistent and standardized. Microsoft Windows remains the dominant desktop operating system with only some limited large scale open source desktop implementations.
Where is open source today? As mentioned earlier, open source was as much a philosophical movement against the modern capitalist system as it was a development model. It is somewhat ironic then that open source software has been harnessed so successfully by several corporations to allow them to make profits in others areas. The best example of this is Google. Their computing infrastructure is founded in open source components, and their Android operating system, which is the most popular phone OS, is a derivative of GNU/Linux. That base allows them to focus on making billions of dollars profit primarily from advertising. Richard Stallman is not a fan.
Continuing the irony, while the dream of a community of programmers working for their own enjoyment, and presenting the fruits of their labours for free is real, most of those programmers can’t make a living from their open source development and typically have day jobs in the proprietary software and IT industries. Therefore, open source has not supplanted the control of corporations over the IT world in the way that the movement originally hoped. Still, it is true that open source development is a vibrant and growing community of enthusiasts.
In addition to open source software, open source hardware is now becoming a reality. This movement seeks to make designs and plans for making physical items free to all. With the continued advancement of 3D printing this may become extremely important in the future. Imagine a world where you could print your own open source phone running an open source operating system.
This article is part of the Creative Commons and is free to publish under a cc licence.