The journey of open source software in our company started several years ago. It was smart, logical, but rather tough decision to open the door for open source software use. Thanks to it, today, more than 200 of our engineers integrate, write, or modify vast amount of open source code.
At the beginning, we were not sure, how to handle the idea of open source software use. Should we have some strategy? How should we choose the right license? What are our obligations towards community? How should we handle all legal and accounting obligations? How should we work with open source? How to document its use? We posed these and many other questions and even now we do not know the right answer for some of them.
But, what we learn for sure is the fact that sharing of knowledge and information is very useful. Thus, in this series of blogs, we would like to give you some insight into our view on open source software and our experience with its use.
Let’s start from the beginning and look into the past to understand the roots of open source.
In 1950s and 1960s almost all software was produced by academics and corporate researchers. In general, the software was distributed under the principles of openness and cooperation since it was not considered as a commodity 1.
It is believed that the first example of free and open-source software was A-2 system developed in 1953. This computer program translated computer code written in one programming language into another. UNIVAC (later Remington), which developed this compiler, released it to customers with the source code. Reason for such approach was to encourage the customers to send their proposals for improvements back to UNIVAC.
Later on, in 70’s and early 80’s, popular open approach has changed due to financial costs of software production. Manufacturers like AT&T, IBM and Microsoft started to copyright their technologies. They withheld source code and required licensed use of software. Proprietary software took over market share in the world of technology.
By the early 80’s Richard Stallman, guru of free software movement, has asked simple questions.
What does society need? It needs information that is truly available to its citizens — for example, programs that people can read, fix, adapt, and improve, not just operate. But what software owners typically deliver is a black box that we can’t study or change. Society also needs freedom. When a program has an owner, the users lose freedom to control part of their own lives. And, above all, society needs to encourage the spirit of voluntary cooperation in its citizens. When software owners tell us that helping our neighbors in a natural way is “piracy”, they pollute our society’s civic spirit. This is why we say that free software is a matter of freedom, not price. 2
Richard Stallman transformed his ideas into GNU Project in 1983 and later, in 1985, formed Free Software Foundation (FSF). For Stallman and his FSF four rules are essential when using the free software:
- run the program as you wish, for any purpose;
- modify the program to suit your needs;
- redistribute copies, either gratis or for a fee;
- distribute modified versions of the program, so that the community can benefit from your improvements. 3 It’s important to note that the word “free” in “Free Software” refers to “freedom” rather than “free of charge”.
In 1996, Stallman and his colleagues at the FSF held a conference. The main speaker was Linus Torvalds. Torvalds, LINUX creator, contributed to the GNU Project by letting Stallman use his operating system, but he did not share Stallman’s ideas and ideology. Of course, he was delighted to assist the GNU Project – but unlike Stallman, Torvalds was more interested in the technological aspects of software engineering and operating systems, rather than the social aspects.
In 1998, another initiative called Open Source Initiative (OSI), was formed by Eric Raymond to support the grow the open source community. Although both, FSF and OIS, were born from a common history if Internet free software and hacker culture, their basic goals and philosophy differ 4. The main clash between these two streams is in relationship towards proprietary software. Members of OIS community are willing to coexist with the makers of proprietary software and feel that the issue of whether software is open source is a matter of practicality. While for FSF the most important notion is “freedom”, underlying free software as defined by Stallman. Despite these differences, OIS stands on the shoulders of FSF and they cooperate in practical matters.
Battle between proprietary and open source software is still ongoing, but step by step the open source software starts to dominate in modern software development. Even the players like Microsoft, Oracle or IBM, who had originally seen open source initiatives as threats to their markets, realized that open source is the future. A recent Red Hat surveyrevealed that 86% of IT leaders say the most innovative companies are using open source software. In that same survey, 77% of respondents said they plan to increase their use of open source software in the next 12 months.
In the next blog we will have a look into open source software terminology and write more about open source licenses, including dilemma between permissive and copyleft licenses.