The History of Open Source

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The world of computers is an odd place. In the span of my own lifetime, I’ve gone from not owning a computer because it was too expensive to owning a watch that has more computing power than the first computer I ever owned. The amount of computing power in my house is mind boggling when I think about it compared to twenty years ago.

Software, too, has evolved. I started off with DOS, then switched to Windows 3.1. I never personally owned a modern Mac until a few years ago, but used them throughout school. There was always the PC vs Mac rivalry but I didn’t care for the most part. I used a PC because it played games. That was up until I found Linux.

Somewhere around 2000, I was at a book store and came across a boxed set for Linux Mandrake. I think it was something like fifty dollars and I had enough cash for it. I installed it on a second machine I had and was amazed.

I quickly ran into problems running it and had to search for help online. I started to learn about sharing source code, how to patch and recompile programs, and this whole world of sharing code. The GPL made all of this possible.

This GPL thing intrigued me though. Here was this document that told me I was allowed to modify and share the source code to software as long as I made my changes public. That all made sense. If something didn’t correctly I should be able to fix it and let other people know of the fix. I could not do that with Windows, or Microsoft Office, or Photoshop on the Macs at school.

Why did you need this documentation, this proof that I was allowed to do this and not get in trouble?

That’s the world we live in.

How did we get here?

“All Information should be free” — Steven Levy, “Hackers: Heros of the Computer Revolution”, on the Hacker Ethics

In 1956, the Lincoln Laboratory designed the TX-0, one of the earliest transistorized computers. In 1958 it was loaned to MIT while Lincoln worked on the TX-2.

The TX-0 amazed the early computer hackers at MIT. It didn’t use cards, and it wasn’t cloistered away like the hulking behemoth of a machine from IBM that most people at MIT programmed against. You typed your program onto a ribbon of thin paper, fed it into the console, and your program ran.

Most importantly the TX-0 was not nearly as guarded as the holy IBM 704. Most of the hackers were free to do what they wanted with the machine. There was one problem, and it was somewhat of a large on — the TX-0 had no software.

So the hackers at MIT created what they needed.

Most of the software was kept in drawers and when you needed something, you reached in and grabbed it. The best version of a tool would always be available, and anyone could improve it at any time. Everyone was working to make the computer and the software better for everyone else.

“All information should be free” was a core tenant of the hacker culture at MIT. No one needed permission to modify the software as everyone was interested in making the software, and thereby the TX-0, better.

As the machines changed and the software changed, this ethos did not. Software would be shared and changed to work on many different types of hardware, and improvements were added over time. Needed the latest copy? Just ask for it. Need to fix it? Just fix it.

“To me, the most critical thing in the hobby market right now is the lack of good software courses, books, and software itself. […] Almost a year ago, Paul Allen and myself, expecting the hobby market to expand, hired Monte Davidoff and developed Altair BASIC. […] The feedback we have gotten from the hundreds of people who say they are using BASIC has all been positive. Two surprising things are apparent, however. 1) Most of these “users” never bought BASIC […]” — Bill Gates, “An Open Letter of Hobbyists”

Fast forward to 1976. Computers have left the halls of universities that had the physical space needed in the 50’s and 60’s to house them and are entering people’s homes. They aren’t necessarily like the computers we have today, but all computers need software.

The ideals that the hacker culture at MIT did not change as it spread westward and as these computers invaded the lives of hobbyists. What has changed is the business around computers, and like anything when it comes to humans, there is always money to be made.

“All information should be free” reared it’s head when the tape containing Altair BASIC disappeared from a seminar put on by MITS at Rickey’s Hyatt House in Palo Alto, California. Why? Ed Roberts, the “father of the personal computer” and the founder of MITS (Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems) had decided to not give the Altair BASIC software to customers for free and instead charged $200 for the ability to write software.

For better or for worse, copies of Altair BASIC started appearing and being shared.

The landscape of computers and software development was changing. You no longer had one or two giant machines sitting in a university that had paid staff who could write software for them. With the TX-0 at MIT, it did not cost them anything extra to make and distribute software because there was no downside — there was not any money being exchanged. Just increases in workflow (and better gaming).

By the 1970s the need for software was seeing an ideological shift .Up until this point the creation of software was paid for indirectly by the universities and companies that needed it. Since most software was built by university developers, it was infused with the academic idea of sharing knowledge. Now software developers were seeing the need to develop generic software that many people would need to use.

That costs money, because developers have themselves and their families to support.

“Those who do not understand UNIX are condemned to reinvent it, poorly” — Henry Spencer

The 1970s also saw the development of the Unix operating system developed at AT&T by Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, and others. Much like the original tools built by the hackers at MIT on the TX-0, Unix grew as it was licensed to other companies and universities.

Unix was alluring because it was portable, handled multiple users and multi-tasking. Standards help people develop software, and Unix became one of those standards. Before this was Multics for the GE-645 mainframe, but it was not without its faults.

AT&T, however, was not allowed to get into the computer business due to an antitrust case that was settled in 1958. Unix was not able to be sold as a product, and Bell Labs (owned by AT&T) was required to license its non-telephone technology to anyone who asked.

Ken Thompson did just that.

Unix was handed out with a licenses that dictated the terms of usage, as the software was distributed in source form. The only people who had requested Unix were ones that could afford the servers, namely universities and corporations. The same entities that were used to just sharing software.

The open nature of Unix allowed researchers to extend Unix as they saw fit, much as they were used to doing with most software. As fixes were developed or things were improved, they were folded into mainstream Unix.

The University of California in Berkeley was one of the most sought-after versions of the Unix code base, and started distributing their own variant of BSD in 1978, known as 1BSD, as an add-on to Version 6 Unix.

There was a hitch though. AT&T owned the copyright to the original Unix software. As time went on AT&T used software from projects outside of themselves, including the Computer Sciences Research Group from Berkeley.

Eventually AT&T was allowed to sell Unix, but their commercially available version of Unix was missing pieces that were showing up in the Berkeley variant, and BSD tapes contained AT&T code which meant users of BSD required a usage license from AT&T.

The BSD extensions were what we would eventually call “Open Source,” in a permissive sense. BSD was rewritten to remove the AT&T source code, and while it maintained many of the core concepts of and compatibility with the AT&T Unix, it was legally different.

Much like with Bill Gates and Micro-Soft’s (eventually Microsoft) Altair BASIC, we start to see the business side of software start to conflict with the academic side of software, or more it conflicting with the hacker idea of software.

We also see one of the first true Open Source licenses come from this, which distinctly grants the end user special rights on what they can and can’t do with the software. Unix had its own license which up until commercialization (and a growing market) had been fairly liberal, but BSD wanted to make sure that Unix would be available to whomever needed it.

“Whether gods exist or not, there is no way to get absolute certainty about ethics. Without absolute certainty, what do we do? We do the best we can.” — Richard Stallman

In 1980, copyright law was extended to include computer programs. Before that most software had freely been shared or sold on a good faith basis. You either released your software for everyone to use as public domain, or you sold it with the expectation that someone wouldn’t turn around and give it away for free.

Richard Stallman was, and probably is, one of the last true Hackers from the MIT era. In a sort of hipster-y kind of way he yearned for the time when software could be free, not shackled by laws or corporations. In a sense, software was meant to be shared and wanted to be shared. “All information should be free.”

Stallman announced the GNU project in 1983, which was an attempt to create a Unix-compatible operating system that was not proprietary. NDAs and restricted licenses were antithetical to the ideals of free software that he loved.

The Free Software Foundation was founded in 1985, and along with it came the idea of “copyleft.” Software was meant to be free, and GNU Manifesto shared his ideas on GNU project and software in general. Whether you agreed with it or not, the GNU Manifesto was a fundamental part of what we now consider Open Source.

Stallman then conglomerated his three licenses, the GNU Emacs, the GNU Debugger, and the GNU C Compiler, into a single licenses to better serve software distribution — the GPL v1, in 1989.

The release of the GPL, the release of a non-AT&T BSD Unix, and the flood of commerical software of the 80’s and 90’s, lead us to where we are today, and are the three major ideals that exist:

  • Software should always be free — Copyleft
  • Software should be easy to use and make the developers lives easier — Permissive
  • Software should be handled as the creator sees fit — Commercial

“younger devs today are about POSS — Post open source software. fuck the license and governance, just commit to github.” — James Govenor

Since 2000, a shift has been made toward permissive licensing. One would argue that the GPL is dying. One could argue that developers are more interested in helping themselves than the actual idea of free software.

There is no denying that there are two camps when it comes to Open Source software, with the crux of the problem being exactly what software is supposed to be, or do for us.

The GPL says it should be free. In a way, Software is a living, breathing thing that wants to have the freedom to become the best possible piece of Software. It cannot do that when it can be locked up, chained, and held back from the passions that developers have for making software better. You, the end user, are better because Software can be changed to make everyone’s lives better, and you are better because you can change the Software.

The other camp is more pragmatic in a way. Permissive licensing wants software to be free because that helps Developers. You, the Developer, release software to make people’s lives better. You, the Developer, are more interested in knowing that people can use your software or code in a way that they see fit. The end user is better because the Developer had the freedom to change the software to make everyone’s lives better.

Is one better than the other?

Or should we just throw it all to the wind and ignore sixty years of computer history and forget about licenses?