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A brief history of open source software

Although all the stories related to software are obviously short, that of open source software is one of the longest amongst them. In fact, it could be said that in the beginning, there was only free (libre) software. Later on, proprietary4software was born, and it quickly dominated the software landscape, to the point that it is today considered as the only possible model by many (knowledgeable) people. Only recently has the software industry considered free software as an option again.

When IBM and others sold the first large-scale commercial computers, in the 1960s, they came with some software which was free (libre), in the sense that it could be freely shared among users, it came with source code, and it could be improved and modified. In the late 1960s, the situation changed after the ``unbundling'' of IBM software, and in mid-1970s it was usual to find proprietary software, in the sense that users were not allowed to redistribute it, that source code was not available, and that users could not modify the programs.

In late 1970s and early 1980s, two different groups were establishing the roots of the current open source software movement:

Other remarkable open source project of that time is TeX (a typesetting system, by Donald Knuth), which formed around it a strong community which still exists today.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, open source software continued its development, initially in several relatively isolated groups. USENET and the Internet helped to coordinate transnational efforts, and to build up strong user communities. Slowly, much of the software already developed was integrated, merging the work of many of these groups. As a result of this integration, complete environments could be built on top of Unix using open source software. In many cases, sysadmins even replaced the standard tools with GNU programs. At that time, many applications were already the best ones in their field (Unix utilities, compilers, etc.). Especially interesting is the case of the X Window System, which was one of the first cases of open source software funded by a consortium of companies.

During 1991-1992, the whole landscape of open source software, and of software development in general, was ready to change. Two very exciting events were taking place, although in different communities:

In 1993, both GNU/Linux and 386BSD were reasonably stable platforms. Since then, 386BSD has evolved into a family of BSD based operating systems (NetBSD, FreeBSD, and OpenBSD), while the Linux kernel is healthy evolving and being used in many GNU/Linux distributions (Slackware, Debian, Red Hat, Suse, Mandrake, and many more).

During the 1990s, many open source projects have produced a good quantity of useful (and usually high-quality) software. Some of them (chosen with no special reason in mind) are Apache (widely used as a WWW server), Perl (an interpreted language with lots of libraries), XFree86 (the most widely used X11 implementation for PC-based machines), GNOME and KDE (both providing a consistent set of libraries and applications to present the casual user with an easy to use and friendly desktop environment), Mozilla (the free software project funded by Netscape to build a WWW browser), etc. Of all these projects, GNOME and KDE are especially important, because they address usability by non-technical people. Their results are already visible and of good quality, finally allowing everybody to benefit from open source software. The software being produced by these projects dispels the common myth that open source software is mainly focused on server and developer-oriented systems. In fact, both projects are currently producing lots of desktop personal productivity applications.

The late 1990s are very exciting times with respect to open source software. Open source systems based on GNU/Linux or *BSD are gaining public acceptance, and have become a real alternative to proprietary systems, competing head to head with the market leaders (like Windows NT in servers). In many niches, the best choice is already open source (an outstanding case is Apache as Web server, with a market share consistently over 50%).

The announce of the liberation of Netscape Communicator, in 1998, was the starting point of a rush of many big companies to understand open source software. Apple, Corel and IBM, for instance, are trying different approaches to use, promotion or development of open source software. Many companies of all sizes (from the small startup composed of a couple of programmers to the recently public Red Hat) are exploring new economic models to succeed in the competitive software market. The media has also started to give attention to the formerly marginal open source software movement, which is now composed not only of individuals and non-profit organizations, but also of small and medium companies.

Looking at all these events, the following question easily arises: Are we at the beginning of a new model of the software industry? This is a question which is difficult to answer, since there is no known and reliable method for looking into the future. However, through this document, we hope to provide readers with some information which can be useful can use to reach their own answer.


... proprietary4
Through this document, the term proprietary software will be used to denote all non-free software. This is the usual term for that concept in the free software community.
... Minix,5
Minix is an operating system designed to be useful for learning about the implementation of operating systems, and was at that time partially described in Tanenbaum's classic book ``Operating Systems''.
... GNU/Linux6
Throughout this paper, we will use the term `GNU/Linux' to refer to the whole operating system, and `Linux' to refer to the kernel. Although we know that many people use `Linux' for both concepts, we feel more comfortable acknowledging the job of both the team who built the Linux kernel and the people who contributed to the GNU project. Both made feasible the existence of the whole operating system.

next up previous contents
Next: What is open source Up: Free Software / Open Previous: Introduction   Contents
Jesus M. Gonzalez-Barahona