The Origins and Future of Open Source Software

How Free, Open Source Software Created the Internet

Out of Project MAC, ARC and other ARPA-funded institutions would emerge the collaborative network that would shape the Internet and computing for the next decades. When ARPA decided to network its various research outlets around the country, it turned to a company called Bolt Beranek and Newman (BNN), a Cambridge- based firm made up largely of MIT graduate students and affiliated researchers (including J.C.R. Licklider at various times). BBN would build the initial network computers needed for what was dubbed the ARPANET while UCLA and ARC would take on administrative duties in managing the network. Four initial "nodes" on the network were linked in October 1969 and by October 1972, when the ARPANET was first demonstrated publicly, there were twenty-nine nodes in the network. What would evolve into the Internet had been born.

ARPA would oversee the creation of an array of software needed to manage and extend the computer network. The first set of standards, now known as the "Request for Comments," or RFCs, was the work of the late Jonathan B. Postel. The first standard network protocol was created in 1971 to allow a person at one computer to connect to other computers on the network as if they were local users. This soon evolved into the standard Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) which was complemented in 1972 by the File Transfer Protocol which allowed individual files to be exchanged between computers. In 1976, ARPA hired Vint Cerf, a Stanford professor and an original member of the UCLA graduate student group which helped launch the ARPANET, and Bob Kahn, a former BBN manager on the project, to create a system for integrating the ARPANET with other computer networks. By 1977, they had demonstrated the Internet Protocol (IP) which could be used to integrate satellite, packet radio and the ARPANET. From this point on, new networks of computers could be easily added to the network. In 1981, ARPA funded researchers at UC-Berkeley to include TCP/IP networking protocols into UCB's popular version of the UNIX operating system, thereby spreading the Internet standards to computers throughout the world.

An example of the cross-fertilization of staff and ideas outside the government was the case of Bob Metcalfe and Ethernet. Bob Metcalfe had originally designed the interface to connect MIT's computers to the ARPANET and had been hired in the mid-1970s at Xerox Corporation's new Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) which was headed by Bob Taylor, the former IPTO head who had started the ARPANET project. Metcalfe was doing ARPA-funded work while trying to figure out how to cheaply network PARC's experimental personal computers. Using models from ARPA's project around radio packet switching, Metcalfe created a system called Ethernet to exchange information between computers in what would come to be called Local Area Networks (LANs). Ethernet was crucial for the expansion of the Internet since local computers could be networked together and then connected to other networks using the TCP/IP protocol and local router computers. Xerox would start selling Ethernet as a commercial product in 1980 (and Metcalfe would found 3Com to sell networking technology), while PARC head Bob Taylor donated millions of dollars of Ethernet equipment to universities to help expand use of networking on campuses.

In all these ways, ARPA helped shepherd open Internet standards into the 1980s and 1990s when they would be used to radically expand the network to a wide range of users. In doing so, it was clear that the professional norms promoted by ARPA and the community of researchers was critical in order to keep individual profit-taking from undermining those open standards. As one example, in 1973 then IPTO head Larry Roberts was hired by BBN to run a company subsidiary called TELENET that would run private packet switching networks. In coming to BBN, Roberts carefully deflected a bid by BBN to take over ARPANET privately. J.C.R. Licklider, who returned from MIT to ARPA to replace Roberts as head of IPTO, soon found himself in conflict with his old employer, BBN, which was refusing to publish the original computer code for the IMP computer routers which the company had designed. Making matters worse, BBN was becoming more and more reluctant itself to fix software bugs faced by the system (no doubt preferring to concentrate on programming for its for-profit TELENET subsidiary). Licklider, in the name of the openness of the Net, threatened to hold up BBN's federal contract funds unless the company released the code publicly. BBN did so, thereby enhancing--albeit reluctantly--the tradition of open codes in the development of standards.

A key part of the success of the Internet was the fact that the public space of the network harnessed the energy of universities, both paid staff and volunteers, to provide a continuous stream of open source software to improve its functionality. The Net itself allowed any new innovation to nearly instantaneously ricochet across the nation, even the world, without the friction of the costs of either distribution or purchase. This "gift" economy allowed new innovations to be quickly tested and to gain a critical mass of users for functions which had not even been envisioned by the creators of the system.

The ethic of shared, open software, what was called the "hacker ethic[3]," at MIT's Project Mac, would contribute to both the creation of the Internet and the spread of computing across the country. Many early efforts were games like Spacewar and Adventure, but more serious software became the staples of day-to-day computing throughout the Internet and beyond. Probably the most pervasive example was the early use of the ARPANET for electronic mail. Not even planned as part of its design, email was created as a private "hack" by BBN engineer Ray Tomlinson in 1972 as a piggyback on the file transfer protocol. Under the tolerant supervision of ARPA, use of the Net for email communication soon surpassed computing resource sharing. Stephen Lukasik, ARPA director from 1971 to 1975, saw the importance of email for long-distance collaboration and himself soon began virtually directing ARPA from electronic mail and his 20-lb Texas Instruments portable terminal. Partly because of Lukasik's own frustration in dealing with the stream of raw mail, IPTO director Larry Roberts himself wrote the code for the first mail manager software, called READ. This was soon supplanted by the popular MSG, which added the first reply function. New free email managers have been a staple of Internet innovation ever since. Eric Allman, a student at UC-Berkeley, would create the program SENDMAIL to assist network managers in directing and processing this ever increasing email traffic--to this day, Allman's program is used to direct over 75% of Internet email traffic. Others at Berkeley created the Berkeley Internet Name Daemon (BIND) program which is used to direct traffic to sites by the site name--like www.netaction.org--rather than having to use numbers like 199.201.243.200.

While free and open source software continued to enhance the spread of computer networking, what ultimately brought the Internet into its own was the "Gopher" software developed at the University of Minnesota in the early 1990s. Building on the existence of individual Internet sites where files and programs could be retrieved after logging into a particular computer over the network, Gopher was a piece of software that could be used to create personalized lists of files from computers all over the Net and allow computer users to view or retrieve any file chosen from the list. With this innovation, the Internet became one giant hard drive that could be organized and presented to a particular set of users in whatever way made the most logical or aesthetic sense. Gophers sprang up on computers run by governments, universities, community organizations and businesses which were beginning to stake a place on the Net. In a visual way, the Internet's vast resources could be presented and reached through Minnesota's "All the Gopher Sites in the World" gopher site. For most commercial users of service providers like America Online, gophers were the user's initial contact with the world of the Internet, and this contact created demand for even more of the content that users knew existed out of the proprietary walls of those commercial providers.

The next step, and the step that brought the Internet into almost daily headlines, was the World Wide Web. The Web was initially designed at the European Particle Physics Lab (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland to share information internally--what would be designated as an Intranet today. However, people quickly saw it as a useful way of sharing information between computer systems much like the Gopher software, with the additional advantage of "hypertext" connections to internal parts of documents. In 1993, computer science students funded at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications located at the University of Illinois created Mosaic, the first Web browser that added the display of graphics to the traditional text display. With an almost unnerving speed, Web sites exploded across the Internet along with the browsers needed to view them. It was only with Netscape's creation of its Navigator software, followed soon by Microsoft's Explorer software, that secret code and commercial software began to erode the open source tradition of the Internet--an issue we will return to later in this paper.

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