Open source turns 20 years old, looks to attract normal people

Who knew sharing would transform an industry?

By Thomas Claburn in San Francisco


Feature Twenty years ago, the Open Source Definition (OSD) was published, providing a framework for the most significant trend in software development since then, and building upon Richard Stallman's prior advocacy for "free software."

The Open Source Initiative, a non-profit that advocates open source development and non-proprietary software, pegs the date of inception at February 3, 1998. That's when the term "open source" was proposed by Christine Peterson during a meeting convened to build upon interest arising from the decision by browser maker Netscape to release its source code.

An alternative to "free software" was sought because that term invariably requires further explanation that "free" refers to liberty rather than price. While people can and do quibble about differentiating details, both "free software" and "open source" ultimately boil down to making application and system source code available and putting the software under a license that favors user freedom.

To companies accustomed to keeping source code secret, and to intellectual property profiteers, that amounted to heresy.

In an account penned in 2006 and published on Thursday, Peterson said that other suggestions to describe software unencumbered by restrictions included "source code available," "freely distributable," "cooperatively developed," and "sourceware."

The term "open source" won, on February 5, 1998, as Peterson tells it. Stallman still prefers "free software," but that's another story.

One of the founders of the open source movement, Bruce Perens, who had previously drafted the Debian Free Software Guidelines (which would be adapted to become the OSD), puts the date at February, 9, 1998, when he published an announcement of the OSD.

Whatever the date – some time in early February two decades ago – open source took root as a practical aspiration, in a form more commercially palatable than the ideologically rigid free software movement – and the result can be seen in the today's tech industry.

"My take on open source is that it's a way to promote the idea of 'free software' to business people," said Perens in a phone interview with The Register. "It's not fundamentally different than 'free software.' It's just a way to talk about the same thing to different people."

The more moderate messaging worked. You can't throw a smartphone in Silicon Valley without hitting a business that benefits from open source software, not to mention the fact that both Android and iOS devices, for all their proprietary parts, rely on open source code in the form of Linux and Darwin.

The leading technology platform companies of the moment – Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft – all depend to varying degrees on open source software, to say nothing of the businesses today running Linux on premises or in data centers somewhere.


Microsoft deserves special mention for its embrace of open source because it was once so ardent a champion of proprietary software that in 2001 Steve Ballmer, CEO at the time, likened Linux to cancer for what the GPL (General Public License) supposedly did to intellectual property rights.

Tim Burke, veep of Linux infrastructure engineering at Red Hat, told The Register in a phone interview that while he expects proprietary software will continue to exist, particularly with regard to problems not large enough to attract a developer community, open source has become the center of innovation.

Initially, he said, open source projects represented attempts to reproduce or provide alternatives to popularly proprietary applications and operating systems. OpenOffice, for example, followed in the footsteps of Microsoft Office.

"Today," Burke said, "open source is leading innovation. We're not cloning anymore."

Taking a stand

Perens said the open source community stands of the shoulders of Richard Stallman and his advocacy of free software. Stallman's concerns, he said, are as relevant today as they were decades ago.

And isn't that the truth: that while open source code is vital in just about everything we use – from phones and laptops to games consoles and smart home gadgets – the vast majority of us are still reliant on blobs of black-box closed source software that we can't easily inspect, change, or control.

"Richard Stallman said that a smartphone is a totalitarian's dream and he's absolutely right about that," said Perens. "The whole idea of free software has even more meaning now than when Richard started working on this."

To Perens, the acceptance of open source is more than he could have asked for.

"I think the penetration of open source over the past 20 years has been amazing," he said. "It's because the world was ready for it and we just did not know it. Open source allowed us to circumvent a lot of the problems that existed in having companies collaborate with each other."

Perens said he was excited about the way open source ideals are being adopted beyond the software industry, pointing at open hardware designs and the Fashion Freedom Initiative, through which dress designs are made available for anyone to reproduce.

"I think open source has promoted a much more mature understanding of intellectual property," said Perens. "The understanding of intellectual property that we had in companies used to be that you just held it close. If you licensed it to anyone, you did it with rather pernicious agreements, NDAs, and so on. And there was potential horror to befall you in allowing people to see you intellectual property. As a result, I think most companies did not utilize their own intellectual property efficiency. There were many cases where a company would have done better with sharing but no one could get their head around that."

The next 20 years are likely to be spent expanding the community beyond the free software adherents, savvy tech users, and sysadmins.

"The question is can we win a user community, and more than that, can we relate to normal people instead of computer geeks?" said Perens.

Toward that end, Perens said he sometimes asks open source and free software people to indulge in an exercise.


"I tell them, go stand in the Apple Store," he said. "You know, be polite. Don't look like you're weird. And just look at the people around you in the Apple Store. They're all happy and excited at how they're going to be enabled by the technology that Apple is selling them."

"Can we get to the point where people feel the same way about a device that's built with open source free software?" he asked. "We haven't built up, I think, the normal-user empathy that we need for that task yet. But it's not an impossible one."

That task, rather than requiring continuing technical innovation, demands empathy and emotional maturity, qualities, Perens explained, that not everyone in the open source community has.

Burke expressed optimism about the open source community because it is becoming more diverse. "In the early days," he said, "it was mostly white guys."

Efforts, he said, to involve women and other underrepresented groups and to make the style of interaction less confrontational have been paying off.

"That's really helped get more people in the communities and that's what open source is all about," he said. "It's about building community."

The color of money

Beyond the need for diversity, Perens foresees legal challenges. "A lot of the law around our licenses is still cloudy," he said. "A lot of it has never been litigated. And standards are an area where we're seeing some [patent royalty] pressure right now."

Stallman's GNU at 30: The hippie OS that foresaw the rise of Apple - and is now trying to take it on


Then there's the issue of corporations coopting the movement, loading up outfits like the Linux Foundation with company reps.

"Part of the problem we're having is we shifted from having open source organizations speak for open source to having organizations like the Linux Foundation," he said. "If you look at the controlling board of the Linux Foundation, I don't think they're interested in reforming patents, even if that benefits open source software. They're the companies that benefit from software patenting."

Burke contends that there's always been a tension between individuals and companies in the open source community. Even 15 year ago, he said, the vast majority of contributors to Linux were paid and sponsored by corporations. "That dynamic has always been there," he said.

Perens said he was particularly concerned about the Linux Foundation, referring to the organization, as he has previously, as "loggers who say they speak for the trees." Its board, he said, is entirely made of big companies, and it lobbies legislators and provides speakers at events with messaging that advances its members' interests rather than those of the open source community.


He also pointed to the trademark conflict between the Software Freedom Law Center and the Software Freedom Conservancy as a source of distress. "I'm really very shocked at [SFLC executive director] Eben Moglen, but obviously the SFLC is supported by the Linux Foundation and I see them having a role in that conflict. A lot of people in the open source free software community are really heartbroken about what Eben's doing right now, because he was a friend, a friend for decades, and we don't understand."

And Perens expressed doubts about the Open Innovation Network, ostensibly a defensive patent pool to protect Linux from patent claims. "The big question I have is does Open Innovation Network exist to protect open source from software patenting or to protect software patenting from open source?"

Perens argues that the activities of the Open Innovation Network and the Linux Foundation have actually worked against patent reform.

"As the Linux Foundation sort of moves further and further toward the right, which we're seeing now with VMware on the steering board, it's sort of operating like a Linux infringers organization," he said. "Those things worry me. And the campaign against GPL enforcement coming from the Software Freedom Law Center seems like it's motivated by that."

The challenge for the open source community is not only bringing more people in, but preventing people from pulling it apart. ®

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