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Humble Beginnings – The Free and Open Source Movement

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Take a look at your phone, tablet, or hundreds of computer software you run every day. Chances are, some of the programs you use – are free, or open source. Free and open source programs and software have been increasing since their humble beginnings in the late 1980s and 1990s.

The technological achievements within just the last 10 years have solidified the strength of what is described as the “Free and Open Movement”. This Free and Open Movement includes various other movements within it, such as the Free Software Movement, Open Source Movement, and the Creative Commons.

The beauty of these platforms, has been that people can engage each other by working as a collective community, contributing to the code of the program for the benefit of all users. This also benefits the contributor as well, since the contributor will also be using the program, thus it being in their best interest to do the best possible job.

This type of free and open model does not bode well for those used to the “conventional” model, whereby the typical method employed in the tech industry has been to patent programs, trade mark them with copyrights, and establish an in-house programming team to handle bugs and conflicts without involvement from an outside community.

This model is increasingly challenged more and more, as the Free and Open Movement experiences growth. The idea behind this is simple. The emphasis is on collaboration, rather than competition. This is becoming an increasing trend and theme, one which will be addressed in future articles.

On the merits of collaboration, the license that is employed by free or open source software is dramatically different than the licensing of software that is closed or proprietary. Also, with an free/open source model of software development, less middle men are needed, such as lawyers, mediators, and courts because with collaboration, the mutual benefit helps all parties involved.

In this context, “middle men” offer little productive value towards innovation, rather they become parasites in a free and open model of development. This new age form of development is a beautiful concept, and the early beginnings of this growing and powerful movement deserve to be studied due to their ground breaking innovations, and positive impact they have brought to all societies, especially those in the global south.

In fact, we might even say the birth of the Free and Open Movement began in the minds of a small collective of original “hackers”, including Richard Stallman. Stallman brought forth an ideological, legal, technological, and philosophical basis for the Free and Open Movement. He eventually led the Free Software Foundation, which stood at the forefront of the Free Software Movement. This movement is characterized as fighting to ensure all software is free for all individuals in order to create a more prosperous society.

The Story

Stallman was the founder of the GNU project, a system he called the “incompatible time sharing system“. He also holds an alternative view of hackers, one where hackers were playful, inquisitive  individuals that enjoyed hacking for the challenge it provided. This tends to be in stark contrast to the view of hackers in the mainstream tv establishment that paint hackers with a much darker and sinister agenda.

Stallman realized a problem started in the tech industry when the use of password implementation came to M.I.T. In his early days, computers did not have password securities because passwords were only used to keep users out and bar them access. The decision to enforce passwords came from the top, and the hackers using the computers did not employ them because those accessing the systems realized that passwords were ways that the administrators could control all the users and they didn’t want to build the tools (the locks and keys) for the administrators to control them, so they just didn’t create them.

Stallman noted a time when one computer was password coded at MIT, and this triggered his decision in hacking into it. He studied how to decode the passwords by looking at the database of encoded passwords, and he was able to determine the code each person actually typed to log in. He sent messages to these individuals, asking them to stop using their complicated passwords, and instead offered them to just use a simple password such as ‘enter’ instead. A fifth of the users that logged into that computer complied.

This started the ground working mechanism in Stallman’s mind for the eventual nourishment of the Free Software Foundation.

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Open Source began with the start of computers, because  at that time, software was just passed on between people. It was only in the late 70s, early 80s, that software companies emerged and were successful in closing their software and locking their source code in. Microsoft were one of the pioneers of the proprietary model for software.

In the mid 1970s, a group of hackers and hobbyists in Silicon Valley started the HomeBrew Computer Club. Bill Gates personally wrote a letter to the HomeBrew Club titled: An Open Letter to Hobbyists dated February 3rd, 1976. The letter was addressed to early PC hobbyists, for which Gates expressed much dismay due to the rampant “copyright infringement” ,as he would term it, that took place in the hobbyist community, particularly with regard to his company’s software.

Throughout the letter, Bill Gates frustration was noticeable, since most computer hobbyists who were using his company’s Altair BASIC software were doing so, without paying for it. He explained, that such unauthorized copying discouraged developers from investing time and money in creating high quality software. He also cited the unfairness of gaining the benefits of software authors’ time, effort, and capital without paying them.

For Stallman, he noticed the effects of closed/proprietary software firsthand. According to Eric Raymon, author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar, in the late 1970s, Stallman stated, that to get one of the modern computers of the day in the ‘80s, you would have to get a proprietary operating system by companies that did not want to share, and they would instead lock users in by dominating and controlling users, and make them sign a promise that they would not  share the computer with others.

Stallman realized contracts hurt the lab, and the idea of innovation. Stallman made it clear that this is wrong, and this began his hostility towards proprietary software.

The Dream

Stallman had an idea. He realized he was an Operating system developer, and came upon the realization, that if he created an alternative operating system, then he could reach other people and encourage them to form an entirely new community.

Thus he began working on such a project in January 1984 and this is when he resigned from MIT and started working on the GNU operating system.

According to Stallman, GNU is a hack, a recursive acronym, meaning “Gnu’s Not Unix”. The name implies, it was a system like the Unix operating system, but was not the Unix operating system. Unix was a proprietary system, thus it was “useless” for a community, thus Stallman wrote a replacement for it.

Also in the 1980s, computer scientists at the University of California at Berkeley were building their own open source software, called Berkely Unix or BSD. It was based on the Unix kernel that was licensed from AT&T. However due to legal problems with AT&T and fragmentation of the source code, hackers and other institutional users were slow to adopt it.

The Unix operating system (OS), consisted of a large number of separate programs that communicated with each other. So Stallman intended on replacing each of these programs one by one. Thus he wrote a replacement for each of them and people started joining him because he published announcements on his progress in his works. By 1991, Stallman and his team of hackers/contributors had been successful in replacing practically all of the programs.

These early programmers and developers understood, that to have a complete system, you needed to have a kernel – a program that allocates resources to all the other programs, and you also required a compiler, which translates a program from readable source code that programmers could understand, into numbers (binary) that the computer can actually run.

There were also other requirements necessary, such as other programs with the compiler to make this run, which would include a debugger, text editor, text formatter, mailer,  and many other programs. This is because there were hundreds of programs like these, in a Unix like operating system.

The fundamental role that businesses played in a free/open source environment was one that led Michael Tiemann, co-founder of Cygnus Solutions, to become a pioneer for its success. He was able to generate a successful business model around a free operating system by offering consultative support. This business model was unheard of, for the time.

The Difference

By now, you would assume free software and open source software would be the exact same however this is not the case. There are certain differences between them. Free software, such as “freeware”, is characterized as free and not having a cost associated with it to its users. Free software has a copyright, an owner, and is bundled with a license. It is not part of the public domain as its’ source code is not freely available.

The source code of a program is the lifeblood, thus if an individual receives access to the source code, they can modify and improve upon it.

With open source software, its source code is freely available. However, open source software may not necessarily be free, since profit can be obtained in an open source model.

Then there is the Free Software Foundation, founded by Stallman, that brings a philosophical argument, where all software should inherently be free for all individuals for a prosperous future, one that celebrates and encourages collaboration and altruism with each other, rather than competition and profits at the behest of others.

There are also those in the open source camp that believe that some commercialization helps to speed their cause, and this is quite apparent with the recent amount of attention open source software and programs have received in recent years. Thanks to the emergence of Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and the rest of the entire web 2.0 industry, it has become a sprawling space with thousands of small business start up companies.

All these businesses have been adopting the new “cloud” infrastructure, which may represent a new and innovative way to bring the cause of open source software to more and more of the masses. The bottom line is that the differences between the Free Software Movement and the Open Source Movement are relatively small, however their fundamental principles and framework remain the same.

They just go about the cause with different methods and both have contributed tremendous success in the free and open model of development. To set up the policies for his vision, Stallman employed a technique called ‘Copyleft’.

This was done in response to the corporate “Copyright”, because if they did not do this and just created everything open and free without any protection mechanisms, then any company could use the software, add their own little tweaks and turn it into a profit based model with a proprietary version to charge people with.

The idea behind Copyleft, is that the open free software gives users the permission to copy, distribute, and change the content, however, when it is redistributed by a user – it must be under the same terms that were originally assigned to that user, no more or no less.

This system ensures, that other people that come across distributed copies, can also receive the same and exact freedom to co-operate and share with other people as the original distributor received. An example of their Copyleft policy is found within the GNU General License. Found under the “Preamble” section of any GNU license, it specifically states that the GNU General Public License is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and alter free software.

The beauty of the GNU license, was that it was one of the few software licenses written from the standpoint of flourishing the community, rather than on the standpoint of protecting a company.

Despite all of these milestones created by Stallman and the Free Software Movement, there remained the problem of adoption by the masses. The popularity of free and open software grew by leaps and bounds through the support of yet another man, one who would propel the Free and Open Movement from the hackers of the day, into the hands of ordinary users. That man was Linus Torvalds, inventor of Linux.

The next article examines the Linux legacy.

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  1. Pingback: The Linux Story – Free and Open Movement Pt 2Prudent Press

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