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History of Open Source

It probably won’t surprise you that the open source movement was born in the U.S. academic world. In some ways, the idea is reminiscent of academic freedom itself.

Computer scientists working in higher education were the first to develop and freely share software in the 1950s. But as computing systems became more complex and capable, the costs of software development increased so that by the 1960s, computer hardware companies were charging for software that was bundled with their products.

During the 1970s Unix, an operating system that could run on multiple computer platforms, became popular in academic circles. Ultimately, this led to large-scale adoption of Unix by commercial startups, most notably Solaris, HP-UX and AIX. Among the many variants of Unix, Mac OS X is the most widely used.

By the 1980s, the importance of software became clear and many technology leaders began speaking out against the ever-increasing costs associated with it. The GNU Project was launched in 1984 to create a complete computer operating system that was free from constraints on use of its source code, and also in part to protest the costs and limitations of commercial software. In 1991, the Linux operating system emerged under the GNU Public License. Millions use GNU/Linux today, though many refer to it as simply, Linux.

Eric Raymond rearticulated the governing principles behind two free software development models, first before the Linux Congress in 1997 and then in his book, The Cathedral and the BazaarHis book outlines 19 guidelines for creating good open source software and provided the final push to make the case for releasing source code to the public.

As a result, the term “open source software” was coined in 1998 when Netscape finally released the source code for its cutting-edge web browser, in hopes of improving it by allowing more people to find and fix bugs. The attention surrounding the Netscape release created the opportunity to educate and advocate for the superiority of an open development process.


Open source today

Most of the software we use is still commercially licensed. You don’t buy it and you never own it. Essentially, you just lease the right to use it. Developers, hired for their expertise, are paid by companies to design, write, repair and upgrade the software, but that company still owns all the rights to the software. The computer programs or source code is proprietary and not distributed.

Over the past twenty years, open source software has emerged as a major force throughout our information-driven economy. Open source practices have dramatically changed the way software is developed. And now we have an unending array of tools and Internet-based services that make it possible, if not downright easy, for nearly everyone to create and distribute useful, important software.

One of the great things about open source is that individuals will write apps to solve a specific problem they have, and then find that others share their interest in solving that same problem. It’s all about openness and community.

Some for-profit companies have leveraged the dramatic rise in open source to their own advantage, instead of that of the community. They lock down an otherwise open source application with proprietary extensions that limit open use. Or they release a limited version of the software under a license that is restrictive but open. Here’s the key: ask about the community behind the software. Is there a truly open community of stakeholders, or are all the developers working for one company? How big are the communities of developers and users? Again, it’s all about openness and community.

Higher education continues to be the leader in training software developers, conducting research on software design, furthering marketing and development and openly sharing their intellectual property with others in the global community. Others, like the global Drupal community, share openly in the same model, creating software once and sharing it with everyone so it constantly improves.


What can open source do for you?

Over 60 percent [1] of higher education institutions use open source solutions, both on the server and on the desktop. Why? Because they want flexibility and control. Cost savings is another big reason, which can reach six figures over the typical three-year university contract term.

Free, open source software gives you the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. It specifically offers the freedom to:

  • Run the program for any purpose.
  • Study how the program works and adapt it to your needs, with access to the source code.
  • Redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  • Access source code to improve the program and release your improvements to the public.

Longsight is here to help you discover the many advantages of open source solutions. If you want to increase your control over the technologies you have, reduce the risks and costs of rapid technological changes and avoid being locked in to any one product or vendor, you’ll want to carefully consider the incredibly successful path being paved by open source software. 



[1] Green, Kenneth. Campus Computing Survey, 2011. http://campuscomputing.net

Raymond, Eric S. The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary. O’Reilly Media, Sebastopol, California, 1999.

Wilson, Scott. “Open Source in Higher Education: How Far Have We Come?” The Guardian, Higher Education Network, 28 March 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2013/mar/28/open-source-universities-development-jisc

“What is GNU?” The GNU Operating System, Free Software Foundation, Inc., 2013. http://www.gnu.org