Archive of UserLand's first discussion group, started October 5, 1998.

Duuh, yes

Author:Raph Levien
Posted:8/23/2000; 7:04:33 PM
Topic:Another key question
Msg #:20044 (In response to 20024)
Prev/Next:20043 / 20045


Dave is asking questions here that have well known answers. He could choose to simply and quietly find out the answers, but instead he is posting inflammatory and incorrect statements. This might be a good thing - it's well known that inflammatory statements foster more discussion than carefully reasoned argument. But he's asking like he's asking difficult, controversial questions.

Most feel that the history of "open source" goes back as far as the culture of computing itself. In the early days, it simply didn't make sense to try to sell your programs. Most people shared. Of course, those were the days before portable programming was popular, so most of these programs were highly tied to the machines they ran on.

As the economics changed (computers got cheaper, portable programming became popular, computers got bigger allowing more intricate software), software took on a higher profile. I think it would be fair to say that a split happened around this time (mid-70's perhaps?). On one side, you had people who believe that software should be locked up as "intellectual property" and sold, and on the other side, you had people who believed in sharing. For a long while, the proprietary side of this was a lot more visible and looked like it was winning, but the free side kept doing interesting things, such as building the Internet, developing TeX (an incredibly sophisticated typesetting environment that's still the best thing around for math), keeping Unix alive, and building a successful prototype of the first real networked hypertext.

Free software has had lots of ups and downs. The Unix wars threatened to kill Unix altogether, taking much interesting free software with it. Fortunately, Linux came along and took control of Unix away from the stupid vendors and prevented that from happening. Further, the Internet gave free software developers powerful tools for communicating with each other, and for recruiting developers from all over the world - free software is an amazingly international effort.

A defining moment in free software came in 1983, when Richard Stallman officially launched the GNU project. This gave much visibility to free software as a true alternative to proprietary software. Stallman's vision has inspired many leagues of programmers to help the cause. I think it's fair to say that the modern free software movement started with GNU.

The term "open source" is quite recent, by comparison. The phrase was coined (or at least brought into popularity) by Eric Raymond around 1996, largely as a response to Raymond's perception that businesses were being scared by both Stallman's extremism and the phrase "free software" that Stallman insisted on using. The term, and Eric's philosophy, entered the public consciousness around November 1997, when he published his paper, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar".

Following that paper was an ugly episode in which Eric Raymond and others (notably Bruce Perens, a favorite pissing match partner of Raymond) fought for control of the Open Source trademark and the organization with formal rights to the name. Neither won, and there is no trademark in force right now. Consequently, a lot of people stretch the meaning of the phrase "open source" to include things that aren't really free software. For that reason, and because many of us don't care that big businesses might be scared by the phrase "free software", free software developers tend to prefer the latter phrase.

Dave mentioned "gatekeepers". There are lots of people who try to appoint themselves as gatekeepers in the land of free software, but you know what? They are irrelevant. Most of us who actually develop free software simply ignore them.

Similarly, beating Microsoft, while it makes good publicity (nothing like a good football game to sell newspapers!) is not what motivates most of us. In fact, some of the more interesting free software out there, such as Samba, Wine and wv, is designed to improve connectivity and interoperability between the Linux and Windows worlds.

Those truly interested may find Andrew Leonard's book in progress helpful:

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