Open source software, or software with the source code readily available for users to modify as needed, has a controversial history that extends into the present day. With the computer and technological boom of the modern age, patenting and licensing of software has become an extremely profitable business, as software giant Microsoft can attest. However, software’s humble beginnings sprouted from the free model of open source.
Richard Stallman, an employee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), became involved with open source software in 1971, although he claims the open sourcing community had been around for many years before his participation. Several user groups of the early period include the SHARE group for IBM 701 and the DECUS group for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). Operating systems in existence at the time, such as UNIX, provided academics and corporate researchers a template for their work. Open source software was extremely valuable during that time period because a variety of hardware systems existed, so changeable software was necessary to respond to the technological needs of each situation.
In 1983, Richard Stallman launched the GNU project to write an improved operating system with its source code available to the public. Soon after the start of the project, he invented the phrase “free software” and founded the Free Software Foundation. In 1991, the first version of the operating system was near completion. However, Stallman and his workers were experiencing problems with the kernel of their system, called the GNU Herd, which was pushing back integration of all developed components.
Simultaneously, the Linux Kernel, developed by Linus Torvalds, was released as source code in 1991. The Linux Kernel was less complicated and more functional than the GNU Herd. When Stallman and his team integrated the Linux code with their work, the first free computer operating system was born. The software created from this code union, commonly known as Linux or GNU/Linux, is still available today.
In 1997, the launch of “open source software,” as opposed to “free software,” began. Eric Raymond, a computer programmer, published a paper called “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” which is a reflection on the hacker community and the direction of free software. The essay encouraged the founding of the Open Source Initiative which seeks to promote open source software and evangelize its principles. As the open source community has grown in recent years, the controversy the community has experienced since its inception has continued.