Open Source Is Winning, and Now It’s Time for People to Win Too

open source

Teaching kids about open source? Don't forget to teach them ethics as well.

Back when I started college, in the fall of 1988, I was introduced to a text editor called Emacs. Actually, it wasn't just called Emacs; it was called "GNU Emacs". The "GNU" part, I soon learned, referred to something called "free software", which was about far more than the fact that it was free of charge. The GNU folks talked about software with extreme intensity, as if the fate of the entire world rested on the success of their software replacing its commercial competition.

Those of us who used such programs, either from GNU or from other, similarly freely licensed software, knew that we were using high-quality code. But to our colleagues at school and work, we were a bit weird, trusting our work to software that wasn't backed by a large, commercial company. (I still remember, as a college intern at HP, telling the others in my group that I had compiled, installed and started to use a new shell known as "bash", which was better than the "k shell" we all were using. Their response was somewhere between bemusement and horror.)

As time went on, I started to use a growing number of programs that fit into this "free software" definition—Linux, Perl and Python were the stars, but plenty of others existed, from Emacs (which I use to this day), sendmail (pretty much the only SMTP server at the time), DNS libraries and the like. In 1998, Tim O'Reilly decided that although the "free software" cause was good, it needed better coordination and marketing. Thus, the term "open source" was popularized, stressing the practical benefits over the philosophical and societal ones.

I was already consulting at the time, regularly fighting an uphill battle with clients—small startups and large multinationals alike—telling them that yes, I trusted code that didn't cost money, could be modified by anyone and was developed by volunteers.

But marketing, believe it or not, really does work. And the term "open source" did a great job of opening many people's minds. Slowly but surely, things started to change: IBM announced that it would invest huge amounts of money in Linux and open-source software. Apache, which had started life as an httpd server, became a foundation that sponsored a growing array of open-source projects. Netscape tumbled as quickly as it had grown, releasing its Mozilla browser as open-source software (and with its own foundation) before going bust. Red Hat proved that you could have a successful open-source company based on selling high-quality services and support. And these are just the most prominent names.

With every announcement, the resistance to using open source in commercial companies dropped bit more. As companies realized that others were depending on open source, they agreed to use it too.