Posted on Feb. 8, 2008

You’ve probably heard the phrase “open source” in reference to software or maybe even open source web development. You might have even heard about municipal governments like the cities of Austin, Texas and Munich, Germany and countries like South Korea and Great Britain adopting open source, but you’re probably still wondering, “What is it?”

First, there’s one thing open source is not. Open source is anything but a new idea. Open source has been with us since the beginning, a time when software and hardware were indistinguishable, when businesses and government shared their ideas in the pursuit of a shared purpose, and before Windows or proprietary software existed. Yes, I’m talking about the 1950s. But what about today?

Since the open source movement began, the rules are simple and haven’t changed at all:
- All open source code is free
- All open source code is free to distribute
- All open source code is free to be modified and updated

But how did open source come to be? Back in the 1950s, IBM was developing the 700 series of large scale commercial computers. Various models were being used by governments and corporations, but there was one thing they all had in common: they required massive amounts of programming. To render dynamic radar images on an IBM 704 required over 80,000 lines of code!

So it was out of necessity that the government, scientists, and businessmen alike worked together to develop code to run these computers. By the 1960s IBM was releasing large-scale commercial computers packaged with free software in the form of an operating system that users were free to distribute, improve, modify, and edit at their will. Out of these early efforts, SHARE Inc., a volunteer-run user group, was born so software developers like us could share source code in the spirit of those that came before them.

But dark times lay ahead for the open source movement as the latter half of the 1970s witnessed the rise of proprietary software. Companies still did not believe computers could do anything for their business, and it took innovative software from the likes of IBM, AT&T, Texas Instruments, Hewlett Packard, and Digital Equipment Corp to convince them otherwise. These early software companies began hiring developers at incredible salaries. In exchange these developers wrote proprietary code, signed non-disclosure agreements and stopped sharing ideas and techniques with programmers from other companies and agencies.

But all was not lost. In the 1980s, programmers grew more embittered by the repressive corporations they had pledged their loyalty and time to. Frustrated by non-disclosure agreements and stifled by the lack of open discussion and cooperation upon which their profession was founded, programmers resurrected open source. They were paid for their code but unable to control its use; able to buy a copy of their work but not alter it. Because these developers were never allowed to truly own that which they created, software developers revolted at the end of the 1980s. Richard Stallman was their ideologue.

Stallman, a programmer for the AI Laboratory of MIT, launched the GNU Project in 1983. The goal of the GNU Project was to develop mass collaboration “free software,” or “a sufficient body of free software […] to get along without any software that is not free.” These were radical ideas from the GNU Manifesto.

In 1990 however, Stallman came to the realization that his goal of an open source operating system may never come to be. Luckily for Stallman, a young programmer from Finland by the name of Linus Torveld was in the process of achieving his dream by soliciting the help of programmers from around the world. The result was the first ever GNU General Public Licensed operating system, Linux, named after its inventor and the operating system it was built upon, Unix.

And so it came to be. From the work of several visionaries, open source as we know it today was born. The movement remains committed to its roots and the principles it was founded upon. Open source continues to improve as a development method for software that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process. According to the Open Source Initiative, “the promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in.” Ultimately, open source development is about evolutionary collaboration.

Fusionbox is a full service Denver interactive agency specializing in open source web development and custom web-based software. For more information on Adam or Fusionbox, contact us at (303)952-7490.