The 9 most important events in Open Source history

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


  1. I’ll definitely add:
    * Opensourcing of Java.
    * Opensourcing of Eclipse and NetBeans.
    * Opensourcing of Solaris and the launch of OpenSolaris.

  2. Round it up to 10 by adding PHP!
    1995 – Rasmus Lerdorf creates PHP
    Widely used business applications have been written in PHP:
    The top 3 web Content Management Systems (CMS) – Joomla, WordPress and Drupal.
    Several CRM systems – Market leader Sugar CRM, vTiger and others.
    Several ERP systems – WebERP and others.
    Several Learning Management Systems (LMS) – Market leader Moodle and others.
    Many popular web sites – User-facing portion of Facebook, Wikipedia (MediaWiki) and Yahoo.
    ERP Systems – WebERp and others.
    eCommerce systems – osCommerce, Magento and others.

  3. I agree with shmerl: Sun has a done a lot for Open Source (although it had a bit of an ugly start, it turned out good).

    I would also like to add Google’s current adventures with Chrome, Chrome OS and Android.

  4. You forgot the founding of Cygnus Support in 1989. Cygnus was the first company to actually try to make money based on supporting only free software. As detailed in “Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution”, the company was profitable, fast-growing, and sufficiently successful to *inspire* follow-on companies like Red Hat. Of course Red Hat was more successful, but Cygnus was the first to prove that you didn’t need proprietary lock-in to be commercially successful with software.

  5. “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” by Eric S. Raymond, first given in 1997. Netscape open sourced their browser after several people read the text version.

  6. I agree with your list of most important events of open source.
    In my personal list of events, I would include one additional event: How I came to use Linux for the first time.
    In the summer of 1996, I was in need of a new LAN server. I had Windows NT in mind, but the cost and specially the restrictions imposed by Microsoft made me hesitate, and look for more information on the Internet. Also visited the Microsoft website for that purpose.
    A few days later a letter from Microsoft arrived, threatening me with legal action if I use “pirated” software. Within 10 minutes after receipt of this, I logged onto the Internet and ordered a copy of Red Hat.
    AFter having installed this together with mySQL database software, I had an excellent database LAN server, very reliable and stable ever since. Linux on the desktop followed some time later, when KDE was sufficiently advanced. After that I never looked back.
    For the record: The computer I used to log into the Microsoft web site was a Digital laptop with Windows pre-installed – not “pirated”.

  7. This is a good list because most of the events you’ve selected were really significant, and continue to impact upon the others. Without Usenet, no GNU, without GNU, no Linux (today at least, since Linux kernels are built using GCC and so on)…and many of the other events have similar dramatic implications for the others (e.g. Firefox for the popularity of desktop GNU/Linux, etc.).

    The exception is Ubuntu: yes, it’s the most widely used GNU/Linux distribution, but I don’t think that in itself makes it a significant event (several other distributions have been the “most popular” at various times). If anything Debian’s arrival is more important (no Debian, no Ubuntu…and that is still the case). Also I’d like to have seen the GPL get its own recognition: yes, it’s part of the GNU project, but the GNU project is worthy of inclusion as software alone (no GNU tools, no Linux distros), whereas the GPL is HUGELY important in its own right.

    Nice list though…thanks for an interesting article.

  8. Hard to believe how such great world of open Source coming together. How about GIMP and Blender. I mean if firefox is on the list, GIMP and Blender should be on it, as well as open source movies too. They are the great step to open up Open Source to the world. Option as a Graphic Designer

  9. For my list, i would and samba as “one of the big things”. With samba it became possible to bring Linux based SMB Servers to very small Companys.

  10. I agree with your inclusion of Usenet, you probably should have Posix on the list too, only intended for UNIX, but it gave everyone a target interface to go for.

    I remember the awe we held Usenet in when we connected our VAX up via UUCP – like you could collaborate across the whole world! And I remember one of my programmers telling me that WWW would be big, and we should get into it early – Ah! hindsight, if only.

  11. Historical correction on Linux:
    Linus started Linux to learn the x86 architecture. The only reason Minix was involved was because at the time Minix was the only unix-like O/S available to him as a student that worked on a PC.
    Quote from an interview about the Brown Institute’s report on linux:
    “I didn’t ‘write the Minix code out of Linux,'” Torvalds said. “I was using Minix when I wrote Linux, but that’s in the same sense that you are using Windows when you write your columns. Do your articles contain Windows source code because you use Windows to write them?”

  12. I wouldn’t subtract anything, but I agree with some of the comments above and would add: Debian, OpenOffice, and Raymond’s book.

    I’d also add UNIX. It was of prime importance to Stallman, Torvalds, and even Tanenbaum’s decision-making processes.

  13. A good list – as someone pointed out it’s a boring list and that’s a good sign.

    I would replace the Ubuntu item with “February 3rd, 1998” when the OSI had its initial roots and the brand of “Open Source” was first proposed:

    I suspect Ubuntu was added to not have the last item be 11 years ago. That might say more about the amount of time it takes for an event to be considered critical than any claim that nothing has happened of such importance since. To consider the open sourcing of Netscape as a major event only makes sense when the amount of work and success of Firefox is considered. In 10 years we may point to Microsoft’s first patch, to Sun releasing Java or to the Android phone.

  14. Surprised it took 10 comments until someone (Hen) suggested the Open Source Initiative. I’m mean, the word was Free Software before that. Kind of a big turn in my book.

    P.S: don’t read this as a personal endorsment of Open Source Software over Free Software on my part.

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