A long time ago… this was in the 1950s, and 1960s… at the dawn of the age of computing, before Unix, before The Internet, before PCs and Macs, majority of software produced was always in collaboration. Software spread under the guiding principles of openness and co-operation, because it was established in academia and not as commodity. In those days, the source code— the human readable blueprint that make up every software application in the world always came with the distributed software. So it was for many years since.
It would probably be a surprise to you that one of the first open source application in the world came from IBM. It was IBM’s Airline Control Program and it ran on IBM’s 360 Mainframes. And according to IT World, ACP was an operating system that was used to manage reservations for airlines and businesses like hotel chains:
What makes ACP interesting to open source supporters is that, while technically I suppose IBM “owned” it, the source code was completely available for any developer to change, fix, and enhance. You needed an IBM mainframe on which to run the code, which even the geekiest did not consider (those people were drooling over the DEC VAX back then), so availability is only a relative term. I don’t remember exactly how the code was contributed back to IBM, which served largely as a code repository (and also sold high-priced technical consultants to help these large enterprises install, support, and deploy the software on IBM hardware — some things don’t change). But I do know that it was done.
Sometime in the 1970s, this was a time when most computer software came bundled with the machine. Bill Gates wrote an open letter to hobbyist saying they were stealing from him:
Why is this? As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid?
Reaction, you might want to know was strong and critical. Some even cited that Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Monte Davidoff used Harvard’s Aiken Computer Center, and the mainframe there was funded by the Department of Defense and that Gates and company had used this to create a commercial product. You have to understand that at this point in time, personal computers were just on the rise. Big and power computers only existed in universities and in government agencies.
It was the sign of the changing times. By 1979, AT&T began making a profit off Unix.
Jim Warren of the Homebrew Computer Club and editor of Dr. Dobb’s Journal wrote in July 1976:
There is a viable alternative to the problems raised by Bill Gates in his irate letter to computer hobbyists concerning “ripping off” software. When software is free, or so inexpensive that it’s easier to pay for it than to duplicate it, then it won’t be “stolen”.
The problem persists today as not only software can easily be shared on the computer, but music, video, television, books and images.
For the most part being able to get the product— whether book, music, television, video, images or software easily, and at the same time, you can easily pay for it— near zero hassle is the best ingredient to fight piracy.
It was increasingly becoming clear that software was being commoditized. By 1983, Richard Stallman created the Free Software Foundation largely to preserve the culture that has existed for sometime— that software ought to be shared, redistributed, that the source code be open for everyone to read, use, and reuse. The Free Software Foundation and Stallman believe that Free Software— to create, distribute and modify computer software is a Universal Freedom.
USENet and the Internet began, and the biggest champion of free software emerged in 1990s when Linux was born. By 1993, Debian Linux, a project started by Ian Murdock would rise and eventually, the Debian Social Contract would form the basis of the Open Source Definition.
What’s clear throughout the history of open source and free software is that there are projects and goals that are best initiated as open source or free software. Projects that consist of the underlying infrastructure— kernels, toolchains, webservers, computer languages, database software, content management systems, web browsers, disaster management software, supercomputing and similar initiatives have greatly benefited from being open source projects. They are mostly stable, and powerful systems. Linux for example serve as foundation for mobile phone Operating Systems like Android. It also forms the underlying infrastructure of WebOS, HP/Palm’s mobile operating system. The marriage of FreeBSD and NetBSD parts form NEXTStep, which eventually morphed into Darwin, an open source POSIX-compliant OS by Apple.
What’s also clear is that these common infrastructure all benefit from Open Standards and Open Source software.
User interfaces on the other hand have failed to be successful open source initiatives. Applications like Office Suites, Photo Editing software for the most haven’t been successful. Industry specific software like CAD, Search Engines have been more successful as proprietary and commodity systems.
What’s also clear is that the more successful Open Source projects are the ones that have added value on top of them. Some of them make it easier for users to install and manage an open source software like Red Hat, which makes money out of offering support and training services for Linux installs. Linux stacks and linux servers mixed with say, Google’s secret sauce search technology have proven to be a killer combination of open and proprietary system. Open source operating systems like Darwin for example become successful when married with proprietary technology. Making software pretty and polished is what proprietary systems seem to be best at.
Webkit is now the browser of choice that serve as underlying foundation for mobile browsers on iOS, Google Chrome, Palm, Nokia, Samsung and Blackberry just to name a few.
Free and open source software is the best way to get jumpstarted making a variety of things. They serve as excellent building blocks. To say though that free software is the only way to make software is incorrect. Sometimes, all it takes is making APIs and tools freely available, not so much as the software itself. Twitter for example thrives on free APIs that multitude of closed-source clients tap into to get to the tweetstream. To say that proprietary software is “better” is likewise incorrect, as the whole history of Windows reveals. The truism, “Right tools for the right job,” is perhaps the best way to describe the middle way.
Perhaps what’s missing in the generations old struggle between understanding free and open source software and the never-ending battle against proprietary and closed system isn’t that Free software should be a universal right, because they’re methodologies on how to create software, and instead we need to focus to make Hacker Ethics universal. In the end what matters, is that software freedom isn’t just about transparency and accountability, I think is that software freedom day ought to be a celebration of the hacker ethic.
Everyone should have access to computers, and today, the Internet because they do teach something about the way the world works. And everyone should get a chance to have a hands-on experience at it. That the Internet and computers could make your life for the better must be enjoyed by every human being.
That access to information is free.
That a thirst for knowledge should be encouraged and that quest must be given the least amount of resistance.
That meritocracy is the barometer we rate everyone.
That art and beauty can be found in the code— pride in the beauty of the code you create as much as there is truth and beauty in things one creates from a computer.
That these should be universal and free.
This, in my humble opinion is why we celebrate software freedom day.
“Open Source,” by XKCD, some rights reserved.
This was syndicated from Cocoy Chronicles.