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Saturday, 09 February 2008 21:15

Open source: ten years old and growing

Ten years ago, Bruce Perens made what would be a move with huge repercussions, when he published what he called the Open Source Definition. That definition has helped hundreds of businesses but Perens himself does not rank very high in the popularity stakes these days because of his opposition to the marriage between Novell and Microsoft.

Perens' intention, back on February 9, 1998,  was, in his own words, "for Open Source to simply be another way of talking about Free Software, tailored to the ears of business people." At the same time, he has never shied away from acknowledging the debt which everyone who uses any form of FOSS owes to Richard M. Stallman.

"In building our Open Source campaign, we were standing on the shoulders of a giant. Starting in the early 1980s, Richard Stallman blazed the trail with his philosophy of Free Software  and the creation of the GNU System,  which, most notably when it was combined with the Linux kernel, changed the way software works forever," he writes in a message to the community to mark the decade.

After Perens published the Open Source Definition - which was derived from the Debian Free Software Guidelines - he and Eric Raymond launched the Open Source Initiative, an advocacy organisation. The creation of the term open source led to many a flame war with the free software crowd.

While the terms free software and open source are often used as synonyms, there are fundamental differences - in order for software to meet the definition of "free", it has to provide four freedoms - freedom to run the program for any purpose; freedom to study the source code and then change it if one wishes; freedom to help one's neighbour with its use and rights of distribution.

Open source software, while giving the idea that it will always include source code, does not always adhere to this; there are many open source products which include software that is under licences which do not meet the Free Software Foundation's definition of a "free software" licence. To quote the FSF itself: "Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement."

The differences notwithstanding, the genre has made massive strides and the term open source is now prime marketing material. There are dozens of entities which claim to sell software that conforms to the open source guidelines - much in the same way that unscrupulous people try sell "halal" soap in Muslim countries. How the word halal, which refers to a method of slaughtering animals, can be applied to soap is anyone's guess.

These days open source software attracts serious money. (It also attracts its fair share of charlatans). Nearly every major technology company has some kind of involvement with open source - if not openly, then under the covers. There are two camps in town - the Microsoft camp and the open source one.

In the second camp, you can put everyone who does not want to be locked in and dictated to by Microsoft. In the first, you can lump everyone who really has no option. But even those in the first camp often stage a defiant gesture of protest - Dell with its sales of Ubuntu Linux and Asus with its eeePC are two which come to mind.

As open source enters the second decade of its existence, there are plenty of pitfalls ahead. Attempts to lock down things through the use of digital restrictions, and the use of software patents to curb development of FOSS are two.

But equally as dangerous is the spectre of software companies like Novell which join hands with Microsoft for the sake of short-term gains. Co-operation in interoperability can always be used to create lock-in. And projects like Mono are an acute danger as they open the door to patent lawsuits down the track.

There is a tendency among FOSS people nowadays to think that the commercial acceptance of free and open source software means that the community can drops its guard and allow snakes to enter the garden. If this attitude persists, there may be no FOSS to talk about at the end of the second decade.



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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.




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