It’s that time of year again, Thanksgiving!
Just as we remember our forefathers who came to the New World in search of freedom, let’s spare a thought for those Open Source pioneers who helped secure the freedom to use, edit and distribute software that we all enjoy today.
Although Ken Thompson probably isn’t the first name that comes to mind when you hear ‘software freedom’, in my opinion, the open source movement would have been impossible without him.
While working at Bell Labs, Thompson designed and implemented the first UNIX operating system, the OS on which Linux is based today.
Before there was a distinction between proprietary and open source software, UNIX was free. This meant UNIX was shared between labs, universities and programmers across the world, and it could be modified to suit users’ needs.
However, in 1979 Bell copyrighted UNIX, meaning people now had to pay to access its source code. As you can imagine, coders from across the world were pissed.
This leads us onto our next open source trailblazer.
It all started with a printer.
One day Richard Stallman’s printer stopped working, so naturally he approached the device’s manufacturer for its source code so he could fix the issue. They refused. This was the beginning of Stallman’s quest for greater software freedom.
Stallman became determined to develop an alternative to Bell’s copyrighted UNIX, so he started work on his GNU (GNU’s Not Unix) project in 1983. Stallman licensed his project under his GNU GPL license, effectively establishing the concept of ‘copyleft’. This meant his work was free from copyright, allowing it to be freely used, edited and distributed by everyone.
Stallman’s GNU GPL license was to form the de facto constitution for his Free Software Foundation (FSF). To do this day, FSF campaigns for greater software freedom for users across the globe.
However, the GNU project was never able to successfully develop a functional kernel, making the operating system incomplete. This set the stage for our next software freedom pioneer.
Just as with Stallman’s open source journey, Linus Torvald’s started with a desire for greater software freedom.
Torvalds was among many users of the Minix OS who asked its creator, Andrew Tannenbaum, to address their suggestions for modifications and improvements. Yet these requests fell on deaf ears. Torvalds, spurred on by his vision of a developer-centered OS, started work on his own operating system which would give coders an active role in its development and growth.
In 1991, the open source stars aligned. Torvalds had successfully built his Linux kernel, yet few programs were wrapped around it. While Stallman’s GNU had a load of programs, but no kernel. Working together, Stallman and Torvalds’ teams combined the components of one with the kernel of the other to form ‘Linux’, the first completely open source operating system. Today, Linux is the most widely adopted OS out there.
The next stage of our software freedom journey is marked by commercial organizations finally being turned on to the benefits of open source.
The year was 1997 and Eric Raymond had just published his seminal paper ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’. In it, he laid out the virtues of the development method which puts software freedom at its center, namely open source.
His paper couldn’t have come at a better time. In his paper, Raymond claimed Microsoft was making moves to monopolize the browser market. Executives at Netscape read the paper and got the message. To keep the browser market open and compete against Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, there was only one way to go, open source their source code. And this was exactly what Netscape did.
This was a huge move. It was the first time a company put their weight behind open source. The attention surrounding the Netscape release created the opportunity to educate and advocate for the great advantages of an open software development process, for both programmers and commercial organizations alike.
However, open sourcing Netscape may have opened up the browser market, yet for the Internet to be truly free, it needed an open sourced web server to serve it. So, it’s at this point I’d like to introduce our last pioneer.
In 1995, most websites were powered by the government funded NCSA HTTP’d web server. Consequently, individuals were free to use the server, but not modify or improve it. This all changed when NCSA HTTPd’s creator Robert McCool left the NCSA.
Working independently, McCool continued where the NSCA HTTPd left off, taking its code base to finally build what we know today as the Apache HTTP Server .
What makes the Apache HTTP server so important in our open source journey isn’t just that 46% of all websites today are served by it, but it’s completely operated and maintained by the open source community. A pretty impressive feat don’t you think!
After reading about the voyage in search of software freedom, it’s clear that we have a lot be thankful for when it comes to our five founding fathers of open source. However, who will be our software freedom pioneers of the future?
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!