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Open Source History

The open source software movement has its roots in the birth of the UNIX platform, which is why many people associate open source with UNIX and Linux systems, even though the concept has spread to just about every other computer operating system available. UNIX was invented by Bell Labs, which was then the research division of AT&T. AT&T subsequently licensed the software to universities. Because AT&T was regulated, it wasn't able to go into business selling UNIX, so it gave the universities the source code to the operating system, which was not normally done with commercial software. This was an afterthought, since AT&T didn't really think there was much commercial value to it at the time.

Universities, being the breeding grounds for creative thought, immediately set about making their own additions and modifications to the original AT&T code. Some made only minor changes. Others, such as the University of California at Berkley, made so many modifications that they created a whole new branch of code. Soon the UNIX camp was split into two: the AT&T, or System V, code base used by many mainframe and minicomputer manufacturers, and the BSD code base, which spawned many of the BSD-based open source UNIX versions we have today. Linux was originally based on MINIX, a PC-based UNIX, which has System V roots.

The early open sourcers also had a philosophical split in the ranks. A programmer named Richard Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF), which advocated that all software should be open source. He developed a special license to provide for this called the General Public License (GPL). It offers authors some protection of their material from commercial exploitation, but still provides for the free transfer of the source code. Berkley had developed its own open source license earlier, the BSD license, which is less restrictive than the GPL and is used by the many BSD UNIX variants in the open source world.

These two licenses allowed programmers to fearlessly develop for the new UNIX platforms without worry of legal woes or having their work being used by another for commercial gain. This brought about the development of many of the applications that we use today on the Internet, as well as the underlying tools you don't hear as much about, such as the C++ compiler, Gcc, and many programming and scripting languages such as Python, Awk, Sed, Expect, and so on.

However, open source didn't really get its boost until the Internet came to prominence in the early 1990s. Before then, developers had to rely on dial-up networks and Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) to communicate and transfer files back and forth. Networks such as USENET and DALnet sprung up to facilitate these many specialized forums. However, it was difficult and expensive to use these networks, and they often didn't cross international boundaries because of the high costs of dialing up to the BBSs.

The rise of the Internet changed all that. The combination of low-cost global communications and the ease of accessing information through Web pages caused a renaissance of innovation and development in the open source world. Now programmers could collaborate instantly and put up Web sites detailing their work that anyone in the world could easily find using search engines. Projects working on parallel paths merged their resources and combined forces. Other splinter groups spun off from larger ones, confident that they could now find support for their endeavors.

Linux Enters the Scene

It was from this fertile field that open source's largest success to date grew. Linus Torvalds was a struggling Finnish college student who had a knack for fiddling with his PC. He wanted to run a version of UNIX on it since that is what he used at the university. He bought MINIX, which was a simplified PC version of the UNIX operating system. He was frustrated by the limitations in MINIX, particularly in the area of terminal emulation, since he needed to connect to the school to do his work. So what became the fastest growing operating system in history started out as a project to create a terminal emulation program for his PC.

By the time he finished with his program and posted it to some USENET news groups, people began suggesting add-ons and improvements. At that point, the nucleus of what is today a multinational effort, thousands of people strong, was formed. Within six months he had a bare-bones operating system. It didn't do much, but with dozens of programmers contributing to the body of code, it didn't take long for this "science project" to turn into what we know as the open source operating system called Linux.

Linux is a testament to all that is good about open source. It starts with someone wanting to improve on something that already exists or create something totally new. If it is any good, momentum picks up and pretty soon you have something that would take a commercial company years and millions of dollars to create. Yet it didn't cost a dime (unless you count the thousands of hours invested). Because of this, it can be offered free of charge. This allows it to spread even farther and attract even more developers. And the cycle continues. It is a true meritocracy, where only the good code and good programs survive.

However, this is not to say that there is no commercial motive or opportunity in open source. Linus himself has made quite a bit of money by his efforts, though he would be the first to tell you that was never his intention. Many companies have sprung up around Linux to either support it or to build hardware or software around it. RedHat and Turbo Linux are just a few of the companies that have significant revenues and market values (albeit down from their late 1990s heights). Even companies that were known as proprietary software powerhouses, such as IBM, have embraced Linux as a way to sell more of their hardware and services.

This is not to say that all software should be free or open source, although some of the more radical elements in the open source world would argue otherwise. There is room for proprietary, closed source software and always will be. But open source continues to gain momentum and support. Eventually it may represent a majority of the installed base of software. It offers an alternative to the commercial vendors and forces them to continue to innovate and offer real value for what they charge. After all, if there is an open source program that does for free what your commercial program does, you have to make your support worth the money you charge.

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