The Evolution of Open Source

by Modis on March 14, 2012

Today, everyone is familiar with open source, but where did it come from in the first place? What happened to make the switch from company-owned products and software to sharing the source codes so anyone could produce add-ons?

Open source is used to describe any software that has made its source codes readily available to the public to be sub-licensed, changed, distributed, copied, and used. The term can actually apply to any product that has been openly shared with the public and its designs made available; but, in the world of IT, software is the focus.

Photo Source: vaxomatic w/CC License

In the Beginning

It all started back in 1955 with SHARE. This was a group that started to share IBM OS information and talk about programming. Thanks to SHARE, today’s open source market exists. While this was the first group to look at source codes, more and more codes were shared over the next few decades. MIT was one of the big universities to join in, but many research labs also shared codes. The actual phrase, “open source,” wasn’t used until much later, in 1998, though the concept was the same.

UNIX was one of the early success stories using open source. Bell Laboratories developed UNIX and offered it for free in 1979 to research centers and college campuses. It didn’t take long to develop Usenet, which connected programmers and UNIX. In just three years, the use of UNIX went from a mere three sites to more than 400, proving that allowing everyone access to the source code was good for business.

The GNU Project

In 1983, the GNU Project was created. GNU was a free operating system that was upwardly compatible with UNIX, and it was an interesting concept at a time when nearly all software was proprietary, or owned by a company that prohibited sharing. GNU strove to be free to run, copy, or give away – something that wasn’t seen with competitors who kept a tight rein on distribution and use.

The operating system was compatible with UNIX so that users could easily switch over to the free OS and not need to pay anything. At the same time, Linus Torvalds was working on Linux, a UNIX-like kernel, and it made sense to combine the two free software platforms into a single operating system. It’s estimated that tens of millions of people currently use the GNU/Linux operating system.

Photo Source: Sebastian Bergmann w/CC License

Open Source Today

More and more companies have shared the source codes of their software. In 2008, Gartner estimated that 85% of companies were using open source software. While the survey was somewhat small (just 274 businesses), it indicates that businesses see the value of this type of software.

There are many benefits to adopting free and open software in business, as well as for personal use. According to PC World, the top benefits include the following:

Security: Open source software is fixed very quickly when a bug pops up, thanks to multiple people working on the issue.

Quality: With many people helping to develop software, often the same people who are actually using it, open source software tends to be of better quality. It is also highly user friendly since the people using it had a hand in creating the software derivative.

Customization: Again, users can tweak the software to fit their needs, which often means it fits others’ needs as well.

Freedom: The ability to adapt software without waiting for a software development company’s timeline or profitability reports to determine further updates are priceless and a very big reason to use open source software.

Support: While no company offers support for open source programs, there is usually a huge community available to help with any potential issues, including programmers who are willing to make tweaks and changes to help businesses out. This has changed the way companies handle their software issues.

IT companies aren’t the only businesses using open source. In fact, with 85% of companies using this type of software, it can be found over a range of industries. However, according to Gartner, there is an issue: The majority of companies don’t currently have formal policies in place for selecting open source software. This is a mistake, according to the research company, since not all free software is worth the price. Companies should be evaluating the support behind the system chosen, as well as potential risks when it comes to supportability and intellectual property rights.

Today, open source programs are available for every taste. From free games and educational software to accounting and printing, there’s something for nearly every need. While open source may not mean free in a monetary sense, it means freedom – freedom to create and share. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that every program is worth implementing into a business environment. Companies should evaluate software carefully before they determine if it’s worth their time and effort.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Mazurek March 14, 2012 at 11:38 pm

I used Linux for four or five years and it was like heaven. Right now I am stuck with Microsoft Windows because of defective hardware on the computer I’m using for now. It is like being in hell. I’m am looking forward to getting free of the slow sluggish bloat that passes for operating system/software.

Lee Martin March 15, 2012 at 5:15 am

I have worked within the OSS sector for over a decade and have a genuine belief in its application and ability to increase productivity / profitability.
You mention that “Support: While no company offers support for open source programs” – This is not quite true, the Company I work for has been delivering OSS support for over 10 years and we continue to do so.



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