Open Source Turns 10

The author of the ground-breaking "Open Source Definition" manifesto looks back at the movement's first ten years.

On Feb. 9, 1998, the open source movement was born. It was on that historical day a decade ago that Bruce Perens published the defining document of the open source movement, the Open Source Definition.

In the last 10 years open source has gone from being a manifesto to becoming a powerful force across nearly every sector of information technology. Few if any, including Perens himself, could have predicted the impact that open source would have at this point.

"We had Linux, we had networking and we knew we could make wonderful servers. We had a new company called Netscape, which had bought into the philosophy," Perens told InternetNews.com ."What we did not have was any business person other than Netscape taking us seriously."

Netscape adopted the open source philosophy 10 years ago when it launched the Mozilla project. The Open Source Definition literally defines what it is to be open source by setting out terms of what constitutes open source.

The definition expanded on the earlier premise of free software, which continues to be expounded by Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation. The FSF still makes a distinction between free software and what Perens and his colleague Erik Raymond dubbed open source.

Perens argued that for Stallman and Free Software it's about freedom.

"The open source evangelists, myself among them, believe that there are a lot of people that do not naturally come to Stallman's arguments without a gentler introduction, and that is what Open Source seeks to provide," Perens commented. "My introduction is in economic terms of how companies work better, are more innovative and more successful using open source."

Perens added that once people get into open source and at they look at Stallman's work, they realize he was right in 1983, when no one else had a clue. In Perens' view open source stands on Stallman's shoulders.

In the beginning of the open source movement, Microsoft was among the big problems and a poster child for everything that open source was not. Today ten years later, Microsoft has Open Source Initiative (OSI) approved licenses and is actively engaging with the open source community on a number of fronts.

Perens still refers to Microsoft as being a problem, though he did acknowledge that there are some good apples in the bunch.

"When you're in a company as large as Microsoft you always have multiple personality disorder," Perens said. "Inside of Microsoft many are sympathetic to open source, and there are also people who like to use open source honestly for the goals of Microsoft -- there is no problem with that."

The big spoiler in Perens view is the agreement between Microsoft and Novell on patents. Overall, Perens sees patents as a challenge for open source and others in the software industry.

"Open source developers write their own software so they don't have a problem with copyright, which only applies to a particular program not all possible programs," Perens explained. "Patents can apply to all possible programs that do a particular thing."

Patents, however, threaten more than just open source development and are a broader issue. But it's an issue in which open source will have a voice and won't be an outside view, Perens said.

The other challenge to open source is one that goes back all the way to Perens' original Open Source Definition. At the time the definition was published, Perens and his colleague Eric Raymond started the OSI as an effort to help Open Source adoption and to identify licenses that comply with the definition. A decade later, vendors claim to be open source with licenses that are not actually OSI approved.

"You don't call it open source unless it's OSI approved," Perens said. "There are other names that could be used -- like disclosed source, for example. But open source should only be used to identify items that comply with the definition, and for the most part there has been tremendous compliance with that."

As open source turns 10, Perens still sees the Open Source Definition as true today as it was a decade ago. That said, he might have made a few modifications knowing what he knows now.

"Had I known we would have this embarrassment of riches of so many open source licenses, I would have thought more about how to keep that from happening," Perens remarked. "When you promote something this radical to business you don't really expect that they'll all jump in.

This article was first published on InternetNews.com.






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