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The lighter side of open source

In a recent post I talked about the apolitical, amoral nature of open source software and how it puts the interests of a small programming class before the interests of the broad collection of people who interact with programmers’ output. The open source movement has been of great benefit to the software industry, and this hasn’t necessarily been a zero-sum game.

Reality is always more nuanced than history, and yet here is a potted guide to open source history. In the beginning, there were military computers. There was no-one else to share your computer programs with, because:

  1. no-one else had a computer.
  2. well, maybe they did, but they weren’t telling you.
  3. you didn’t want to tell anyone else you have a computer.

Then there were academic computers. Now you do want to share your programs with everyone, and they share theirs with you and so everyone is on the cutting edge.

Then there were commercial computer companies (I told you this history would lack nuance), who were happy to share their programs with you because it meant you could get more out of the computers they were selling.

Then there were commercial computer companies who decided that the source code to the programs used to interface with their hardware were their competitive advantage, and decided to stop sharing them. This made an academic (Richard Meriadoc (humour me) Stallman) sad, and so he created the Free Software movement to:

  1. promote sharing of software over not sharing software;
  2. subvert the copyright system usually used to restrict sharing to enable sharing.

Then there were people who wanted to use Free Software in their day jobs but found that the movement was considered too idealogical to be palatable to management, so they rebranded it Open Source Software to re-frame the discussion along business, rather than political, lines.

This is about the point when your protagonist enters, stage right. The dot-com bubble was imploding, leading to changed fortunes for all sorts of people and organisations in the software industry. Everything I would do regarding professional computing depended in some way on the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation:

  1. I learned Unix, thanks to the ability to inexpensively run GNU/Linux on my desktop computer.
  2. The things I learned about Unix, C programming and so on were portable to various platforms beyond GNU/Linux, thanks to the GNU compiler collection, GNU bash, GNU make, GNU debugger and others.
  3. One such platform was Mac OS X, the new hotness from Apple. This was a technology acquired through the purchase of NeXT, who had been able to provide a complete programming environment despite their small size and (comparatively) small budget by wrapping the tools listed above.

Somewhere in all the above I even found it possible to get paid for writing software: a GPLv2-licensed Lisp package for GNU Emacs.

Of course, that’s just my story, but there are plenty like it. Many other programmers work on platforms like iOS, or Android, or Linux, or in environments like Ruby or Objective-C, that either only exist or have only become as successful as they have due to the successes of the Free Software Foundation, and the ability for organisations (commercial or otherwise) to take advantage of Free or Open Source software as building blocks which they can combine or add to.

Since then, the discussion has again been re-framed. Open Source – originally a branding change to make Free Software acceptable to business – has become a principle rather than a tool. A community that owes its financial viability to Free Software now denounces such “viral” licences, as source released under their conditions is harder to profit from than the more permissive, university-style Open Source licences.

Software writers in the 1980s liked to talk about how object technology would be the silver bullet that allowed re-use and composition of software systems, moving programming from a cottage industry where everyone makes everything from scratch to a production-line enterprise where standard parts fit together to provide a base for valuable products. It wasn’t; the sharing-required software licence was.