"'Free software' is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of 'free' as in 'free speech,' not as in 'free beer'."
—Richard M. Stallman
This chapter is largely a summary of the Wikipedia article on History of Free and open-source software, complemented with some information tidbits and shameless opinions.
In the 1950s and early 1960s the early software was free by definition, due to the academic nature of software development, as well as compatibility and porting requirements and the lack of a separate software business model; revenue was generated with hardware, primarily. It was also a concern that closed source software would allow for backdoors used for clandestine purposes, as it was virtually impossible to see what a software was doing while executed. With the recent leaks on the doings of security agencies and large corporations, it is not a stretch to claim that today this is an even more valid concern…
In the late 1960s the software industry was becoming a real business. Software was getting increasingly decoupled from the hardware business, requiring a separate business model. Lawyers drafted restrictive licenses to enable this. ARPANET researchers used RfCs to develop telecom protocols. This collaboration eventually led to the birth of the Internet in 1969. Just as well; a decade later and we would have a plethora of competing commercial proprietary internets.
In the 1970s AT&T released early versions of UNIX. The software was free of charge, but users were not allowed to redistribute or modify it. In the late 1970s and early 1980s charging for software licenses became a dominant business model for software companies and computer vendors. Legal restrictions were imposed through copyrights, trademarks and other contracts. License enforcement via legal actions began. Software piracy was born.
In the 1980s software was shared via BBS systems. Software written in BASIC and other interpreted languages could only be distributed as source code. A lot of freeware became available. Software modding became popular and Usenet provided a good collaboration channel for programmers/modders. Richard Stallman started the GNU Project and founded the Free Software Foundation. The first companies making free software as their primary business emerged.
In the early 1990s the free software community received the first complete free operating system with Linus Torvald’s kernel combined to GNU operating system. Debian, founded by Ian Murdock in 1993, committed to the GNU and FSF principles of free software. Linux adoption by businesses and governments began in the late 1990s. Website-based companies emerged and made extensive use of free web servers, especially the Apache HTTP Server. The LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) stack gained popularity over expensive proprietary solutions.
Freeware Summit organized by Tim O’Reilly brought together the leaders of free and open source projects. A developer vote decided on Open Source as a new term over Sourceware. The Open Source Initiative was formed much to the disdain of Richard Stallman and the FSF, who felt that OSI was selling out on some core values. FSF and OSI remain the main schools of the movement today and so remains their philosophical discord. Fortunately they do agree on many practical matters and are able to work together for the common cause.
In the early 2000s big software corporations began to see free software as a threat to their core business. Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer called Linux a cancer, referring to its copyleft license. In 2003 SCO made claims that Unix IPR had been copied into Linux kernel and decided to jump straight into the deep end of the pool by suing IBM. They did not lack balls, but, as it turned out, they did mostly lack the ownership of the IPR they claimed had been violated. The case is still technically ongoing, even though SCO filed for bankruptcy in 2007, after multiple defeats in court. SCO allegedly received funding from Microsoft.
In the late 2000s the availability and popularity of hosted distributed revision control services, such as GitHub, has reduced barriers on participating in free software projects.
In the recent years the free software movement has seen some worrying corporate acquisitions, such as Sun Microsystems purchasing MySQL and Oracle purchasing Sun Microsystems.
Meanwhile open source project participation is growing exponentially. Big players, such as telecom operators, are adapting (or seriously considering) free software alternatives. Many new school IT houses and enlightened in-house developers are fighting the good fight, paving way for this tectonic shift. New business models are emerging; creating a popular web service and open sourcing it all would have been, in the recent past, considered financially insane. Today it is becoming a norm.
Many government institutions have adopted free software and open innovation as the fundamental building blocks in building a successful information society. For instance, the Helsinki Region Infoshare program has since 2010 promoted open data publication in the metropolitan area of Finland’s capital, opening up more than a thousand datasets online, allowing for free development of applications to support new business.
The US government has an Open Government National Action Plan that includes an Open Data Policy, with the aim of “making information resources accessible, discoverable, and usable by the public, to help fuel entrepreneurship, innovation, and scientific discovery - to improve Americans’ lives and contribute significantly to job creation.”
Developments such as these are certain to catch the attention of the software industry giants. Hopefully they don’t make a complete mess of it.