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Happy birthday open source: A look back at the software that’s pushing tech forward

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Twenty years. It's been 20 years since the Open Source Definition (based on the Debian Free Software Guidelines) was published. That definition sought to uphold 10 ideas:

  • A license shall not restrict free redistribution
  • The source code must be included with the program
  • The license must allow for derived works
  • The license protects the integrity of the author's source code
  • No discrimination against persons or groups
  • No discrimination against fields of endeavor
  • The rights attached to the program must apply to all to whom the program is redistributed
  • License must not be specific to a product
  • License must not restrict other software
  • License must be technology-neutral

From that original definition, the idea of "free" (as in "freedom," not "price") software was born. In part, because of the Open Source Definition, plenty of game-changing software has been developed. However, even before the Open Source Definition came into being, there was Richard Stallman, who launched the GNU Project, aimed at creating an operating system free from source code restraints. In 1985, Stallman published the GNU Manifesto in Dr. Dobb's Journal of Software Tools. Eight years after that, Eric S. Raymond would go on to publish The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which was a detailed analysis of the hacker community as it pertains to free software principles. It was Raymond's publication that led Netscape to release their Navigator browser as free software.

In between the Stallman and the Raymond publications, something very important happened.

Linux.

It was 1991 when Linus Torvalds began work on the Linux kernel.

But it wasn't until February 3, 1998, that the official Open Source Definition would be published. That definition has become the guide post for Linux developers around the world, and this month it turns 20 years old.

Coincidentally

Interestingly enough, it was 1998 when Linux became my only operating system. So that 20 year mark holds quite a bit of significance to me as well. I'd grown tired of seeing blue screens on Windows and needed an alternative. After much poking around, I came across a free alternative. Being an adjunct professor at the time, "free" was a siren song to me. After a good deal of mental anguish, I managed to get Linux up and running, and haven't changed my tune since. Oh, sure, I've had to adopt macOS for certain tasks such as video editing, but outside of that, I've used nothing but open source software. In fact, my career has hinged on open source for 20 years. It was open source that opened the door to the gigs I hold dear to this day.

A game of "what if?"

I can confidently say, without open source software, I wouldn't be where I am today. I would imagine there are hundreds of thousands who could cry out a similar sentiment. Imagine this: What if open source hadn't helped usher in the likes of:

  • Apache
  • MySQL
  • PHP
  • Ubuntu
  • Red Hat
  • GIMP
  • Firefox
  • LibreOffice
  • OpenStack
  • Node.js
  • Kubernetes
  • Android

Or even consider companies that depend upon open source:

  • Google
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Apple
  • Microsoft

Go on, imagine a world without the above software. Not an easy feat is it? In fact, without open source software, technology wouldn't move nearly as quickly, nor with the amount of transparency we see in today's software stacks. Would Google be Google without open source? Would Kubernetes or MySQL exist? Without MySQL, would we have the likes of Wordpress, Drupal, Nextcloud, or thousands of other titles that depend upon an open source database server?

Probably not.

That game of "what if?" could easily draw a rather slow-moving conclusion for the technology landscape. IT at the speed of, what, proprietary development cycles? I don't know about you, but that thought sends shivers coursing through my spinal fluid. I would go so far as to say that most software stacks, at some point, depend upon open source. If open source isn't within the stack itself, it was likely built using an open source tool or two. Without open source, so much would be missing from our mission.

A happy birthday

Now that we all have imagined a world without open source software, I think it's safe to say the whole of technology (corporate and consumer) would want to wish open source a very happy birthday. To everyone that helped originally build the open source ideal, and to every single person who has contributed to open source, may you enjoy decades more freedom.

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