A brief history of Free Software, Open Source and Linux.

When you set out to try to understand the Linux, Free Software and Open Source world, you are quickly hit by a feeling of being lost in a jungle. It is hard to know where to start, and what to concentrate on. This, I found out, is actually not surprising.

As far as I can tell now, there is actually no real ruling body, no world leader or company that truly controls what is happening.

There are communities though that try to protect, promote, gather and organize the works and efforts of people in their area of interest. Like there is the Linux Foundation, the Open Source Initiativ  and the Free Software Foundation.


Source: Wikipedia user Bobbo

And of course there are the people who created the Free Software, Open Source or Linux movement and the initial software itself. Therefore they can be seen as key-persons for finding structure in the jungle. There is for example Richard Stallman, the pioneer who started to create his own Free Software version of the UNIX system he was working with in the 1980ties, and evolved it into the GNU project with all its Free Software programs and its philosophy behind it. At one point he was only one vital part away from creating his own operation system, namely the program that communicates between the hardware and the programs that you want to run on your computer. That program is called the kernel.

At that time there was a person in Finland who set out to create a computer resembling the one he was using at the university, and who created a kernel to make this possible. As soon as he got that working, he looked around to see which programs he could use with his kernel, and found all the GNU programs readily available. That person is Linus Torvalds, who, unaware of the future of his work, playfully called it Linux – Linus’ own version of UNIX.

He adopted the philosophy of Richard Stallman’s GNU project and made his new Linux software freely available to the world.

So, the result is that everybody who wants can use, modify, sell, give away or whatever they want, the GNU- and Linux software. They just have to follow the licenses (for example this one) that follow with it, that basically prevent people from turning the software into a closed project with no access to the source or possibilities to share it. You may sell Free Software if you can, but you are not allowed to prevent your costumers to copy it, give it away, change it or whatever.

That’s where this jungle feeling comes in again. There are many versions of Linux, just because there is nothing preventing people from making their own version. Just as, basically, everybody can clone an OpenSource or FreeSoftware program and adapt it to their needs.

The UNIX family - source: Wikipedia

The UNIX family – source: Wikipedia

Eric Steven Raymond wrote a book (a first version was published in 1997), called “The Cathedral and the Bazaar“, where he tries to explain why we might have this jungle feeling. He compares the traditional way of building and leading a company or product with a cathedral, where there is a leader at the top, and from there the hierarchy spreads out all the way to the base of the church. The Open Source, Free Software and Linux world however, is compared with a Bazaar, where people are free to choose, contribute, negotiate, complain, refuse or offer their products. It is a horizontal structure, hard to create an overview of, where many people are active and create the Bazaar itself.

Even the core product of Linux, the kernel, is at the moment being developed by more than a thousand developers, some independent, some working for companies like Nokia, Google, Corel, who all together produce improvements practically every day. And they all make it available to the people at the bazaar.  The Linux Foundation published an interesting, and easy readable PDF-article about it.

The Open Source movement is derived from the Free Software movement, and was founded in 1983. The two movements share a lot, but the name “Open Source” was thought to be more clear than Free Software. That soon became the name for software that is free as in Richard Stallman’s Free Software Foundation, but Open Source software is less rigid in its political philosophy behind it.

If you want to learn more, or see and hear the people involved, the movie Revolution OS is a good start.


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