Have you ever wondered about those key moments in time that made open source software such an immense success story? We just did, and here below is our list.
We have narrowed the list down to what we consider the nine most important events that shaped open source into what it is today. The focus is on events that propelled open source forward and resulted in a rich inheritance, or events that strengthened the reputation of open source software in the eyes of the public.
Although this article is not specifically about open source products, some are included because they have had such a huge impact on the open source movement.
The list is presented in chronological order. You may not agree with all of them, but that’s almost inevitable when it comes to a subject as rich as this. If you have your own additions to make, please let us know in the comments.
1980 – Usenet arrives
Maybe this is a controversial inclusion to start with, but open source development has always been driven by collaboration, and with the arrival of Usenet, developers could collaborate on a worldwide level like never before and made it easy to share software.
Usenet (built on top of the infrastructure that is now called the Internet) was in many ways a precursor to today’s Internet forums and predated the World Wide Web by over a decade.
1983 – Richard Stallman starts the GNU Project
Started by Richard Stallman in 1983, the GNU Project is a mass collaboration project for open and free software that has flourished even to this day. Stallman followed up the GNU Project with the creation of the Free Software Foundation in 1985 to further support the free software community.
The GNU Project has resulted in a huge amount of open source software over time and gave birth to the GNU General Public License (GPL), arguably the most popular open source license model out there. And when the Linux kernel arrived, GNU software made it into a complete OS.
1989 – Work begins on 386BSD
Although BSD Unix had been open source for many years and had one of the first open source licenses (the BSD license), unfortunately you also needed a separate license from AT&T to be able to use it because it included AT&T Unix code.
This problem was finally fixed by William and Lynne Jolitz in 1992 when they released 386BSD (also called Jolix). In development since 1989, it was the first completely free and open source version of BSD, independent of the AT&T license. It would spawn several versions of BSD that are still in wide use today; FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD.
1991 – Linus Torvalds creates Linux
The decision by Linus Torvalds to develop his own version of the Minix kernel resulted in the now world-famous Linux. (An interesting side note is that he initially wanted to call it “Freax”.) The Linux kernel became the last piece of the puzzle for the GNU operating system project, providing an entirely free and open source operating system.
Torvalds famously posted the following message to the comp.os.minix newsgroup in 1991:
I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones.
1993 – The founding of Red Hat
Red Hat, a company based around its own Linux distribution, made open source big business. The company proved that it was possible to be highly profitable with something that is, at its core, free. Red Hat has raised the profile of open source significantly over the years.
To give you an idea of how much buzz there was around Red Hat in the late ‘90s, when it went public in 1999, it had one of the largest first-day gains in the history of Wall Street.
1994 – Development starts on MySQL
Michael Widenius and David Axmark started developing MySQL in 1994 (in Sweden, something we feel compelled to point out since we’re Swedes too here at Pingdom 😉 ) and released the first version in 1995.
Over the years, MySQL has become the open source database solution of choice and is used by a huge number of companies and websites like Facebook and Wikipedia. As of 2009, there were more than 11 million MySQL installations.
MySQL has also, just like Red Hat did, shown how open source can be big business. In 2008, Sun paid one billion dollars for the company.
1996 – Apache takes over the Web
The Apache HTTP server showed how an open source product can come to almost completely dominate a market. Based on the NSCA HTTPd, one of the very first web servers, Apache has consistently been the most widely used web server software on the Internet since 1996, and it doesn’t look like this will change anytime soon.
1998 – Netscape open sources its web browser
In its increasingly desperate war with Microsoft and Internet Explorer, Netscape finally decided to open source its web browser early in 1998 and started the open source community Mozilla to hold the reigns.
Although Netscape eventually faded into obscurity and folded, without this historic move there would have been no Mozilla, and without Mozilla there would have been no Firefox, and we all know how influential that web browser has become.
2004 – Canonical releases Ubuntu
When South African millionaire Mark Shuttleworth’s company, Canonical, released the Debian-based Ubuntu in 2004, few could have expected what a massive success it would become. Ubuntu quickly became the most widely used Linux distribution by far, especially on the desktop, and has brought Linux to the masses like no other distribution.
What does YOUR list look like?
There are so many interesting and significant things that have happened in open source over the years that narrowing a list down to just a few “big ones” proved to be quite difficult.
Since there are so many events and projects that have made open source software a better place to be, you are sure to have your own list somewhere in the back of your mind when you read this article.
Agree or disagree, we’d love to hear what you think.
Photo credit: Linus Torvalds by Robert Kratky at abclinuxu.cz.