Open source and Free Software are now synonymous with the software industry, which is still a relatively new area of computing, all things considered. However, the earliest known “open source” initiative dates back to 1911 when Henry Ford launched a group that saw US car manufacturers sharing technology openly, without monetary benefit. Similarly, in the 1950s Volvo decided to keep the design patent open for its three-point seatbelt for other car manufacturers to use for free.
In universities, in big companies and public organisations, sharing software was the norm. Computers were very expensive, specialised and the majority of software was developed more or less from scratch to solve specific issues. Over the years, computers became more ubiquitous and standardised, so software could be separated from the hardware. This gave way to pure software companies that decided they needed to protect their source code of their products. Proprietary software became the norm.
Proprietary software gave companies a competitive advantage but in shutting off access to source code, collaboration all but stopped. Free and open source software (FOSS) became a niche subject that very few participated in.
However, a few notable examples helped grow the spirit of free and open source software. One such project, GNU - a recursive algorithm for “GNU is not UNIX’ - is a FOSS operating system (OS) first developed in 1985. At the time, UNIX was a popular proprietary OS, so the idea was to create a UNIX-compatible OS that was freely available to anyone.
Of course, you can’t talk about the history of FOSS without mentioning Linus Torvalds and Linux. But there are many more open source innovations over the past 40 years that have helped to bring open source to the mainstream once more - the Apache Web Server, the Android Operating System, PHP, MySQL, OpenJDK (an open source version of the Java Platform), and Netscape (who can remember that?), to name a few.
Nowadays, the most innovative technology innovations come from the open source communities - AI and ML, containers and kubernetes. The licensing of open source even influenced the creation of the Creative Commons Licence, amongst other legal innovations.
For more than a century we’ve seen examples of how sharing, making ideas, products and projects available to modify, expand and rework has resulted in better technology. So it’s no surprise then that open source use in the enterprise is growing - in The State of Enterprise Open Source: A Red Hat Report, 95 per cent say it is strategically important to their business, with 77 per cent agreeing that enterprise open source will continue to grow.
Software freedom is more important than ever
There are many examples of FOSS, some we’re all familiar with such as Android, and some which only those in the tech industry may know - Kubernetes. But one of the most important aspects of open source software development has to be the ability for people and organisations to collaborate in the open to solve some of the world’s most pressing issues.
Ideas become stronger with open source. It’s a simple yet powerful belief that has helped to transform technology. Open data, for example, is helping makers, scholars and artisans protect habitats and preserve heritage Open hardware is helping people make ground breaking scientific discoveries, and enabling students to grow their own food in a classroom.
Open source is helping UNICEF map every single school in the world and show their connectivity in real-time. Open source is helping Greenpeace design an entirely new global engagement platform to help connect its millions of supporters to causes they care about.
These are just a few examples that demonstrate what people are doing with open source - the common denominator is the idea that collaboration and sharing are what makes these projects more successful.
What is software freedom?
● Free to use: The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose
● Free to study: The freedom to study how the program works, and modify it
● Free to distribute: The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour
● Free to modify: The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others
● Free to access: The freedom to access the source code of the software
Without software freedom, where would we be? If we take any of the above examples - mapping all the schools across the globe - if it wasn’t for software freedoms this simply wouldn't be possible. In a world where software is proprietary, where access to code comes at a price, then you will be excluding the vast majority of people who can benefit from it most.As technologists, developers, sysadmins, IT directors, CTOs, CEOs and every conceivable role in between, it’s our responsibility to ensure that technology and software remains free and that anyone with an interest in it can access it. We can do this by contributing time, money, and resources to open source software projects and foundations. We can do this by supporting the GPL Initiative. And we can do this by being vocal supporters of free and open source software.