The Case for Government Promotion of Open Source Software

History of the Idea

Although the term "open source software" was coined rather recently, the idea has existed for many years. In the 1960's, when computers were cumbersome and esoteric, all software was essentially "open source." As all computer users at the time were effectively also software developers, whose work required them to make changes to the software they used on a regular basis, the computers made by manufacturers such as IBM were generally shipped with source code included. In the close-knit community of computer scientists, programs and ideas were shared freely. Beginning in the 1970's, when many types of businesses (and later, individuals) began using computers for more diverse tasks, software became proprietary in the interest of profit. With only a small fraction of computer users actually writing software, it became profitable to limit source code access and modification rights to within a single company.

The one area where OSS has thrived in the period of proprietary software development is in the creation of the Internet. The programs on which the Internet depends are for the most part open source software. The Apache web server, the Sendmail mail-forwarding program, and BIND, which manages Internet addresses, are all open source, and each dominates its market.

Many developers who had done work in the earlier period of software development felt that a sense of collaboration and cooperation had been lost, and that software quality would suffer as a result. One of these was Richard Stallman, who in 1983 founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF)[11] to promote collaborative, open software development. Today the FSF remains a key player in the open source initiative.

Another major event in the re-emergence of OSS occurred in 1991 when Linus Torvalds, a college student in Finland, created an open source version of the Unix operating system. This operating system, called Linux, is now a mature product, claiming over 7.5% of the 3.5 million installed server operating systems (compared to Microsoft Windows NT's 36%).[12] It is among the top five operating systems in use worldwide. Many people consider Linux to be faster and more error-free than Windows NT or other proprietary operating systems. A large group of developers from almost every continent, as well as several commercial companies,[13] maintain and update Linux. Development of Linux occurs very fast. During periods of intense development work, new versions are sometimes released as often as once a day. When new features are added, they are scrutinized by the development community, which finds and corrects all manner of errors. New versions of Linux often evolve to shipping quality in a matter of weeks, rather than the months or even years of testing which are common in proprietary software development.

In March of 1998, Netscape Communications, makers of the most popular Internet browser, shocked the software community by announcing that they would release the source code to their browser and begin to accept changes and improvements from the Internet community. In essence, the Netscape browser was changed from proprietary to open source. This decision arguably made Netscape the first well-known, mass marketable piece of software to embrace the open source model. Though Netscape will soon cease to exist as an independent company, having been acquired by America Online, the browser code it released belongs permanently to the open source community (through the independent entity mozilla.org) and can never be returned to its proprietary state.

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