Apr 27 2009
This week, we’re going to try something a little different. Rather than enjoying free apps, we’re going to learn about how freeware came into being and how you can contribute the movement. Hopefully, this brief history lesson will be more interesting than you expect. You’ll see some familiar faces and better understand the lingo of Open Source.
In the Beginning, all Software was Free
We all know something about the early days of the mail-order home PC. Much of the software development for these early machines was written and shared in user groups. Among other Apple soon-to-be’s Steve Wozniac was a high profile figure. In these groups, software hackers came in with their source code and openly shared their work in hopes of forwarding the small movement of home computer hobbyists. One notable figure missing from the fun: young Bill Gates. Though an early part of Silicon Valley, this young enterprising enthusiast sought to introduce the concept of coding for money.
On the corporate/educational front there were also early divisions on paid versus free software. AT&T created UNIX, but by the 70′s many of the utilities and additions to UNIX had been created by contributing academics. These students and professors wanted their work to be free. AT&T was of the same school of thought that Gates was. To solve the problem, professors organized a tremendous volunteer effort to recode the AT&T-owned portions of UNIX. Their product was a free version of UNIX that lives on in FreeBSD, OpenBSD and Apple’s Darwin.
Protecting Free Software: the GPL
Other coders who wanted their hard work to remain free devised the Free Software Foundation, GNU (GNU not UNIX) and a new kind of software liscence: the GPL (GNU Public License). Unlike Berkleyâ€™s “free to distribute” license, the GPL goes one step further. Software published under the GPL must be free and include source code. Also, any additions to the software must also be made available free. This protected the work of good-will programmers that didn’t want a company capitalizing on their hard work.
The Free OS
Under the protection of the GPL, Linus Torvalds created, and maintains today, the Linux project. I say maintains because, thanks to the protection of the GPL hundreds of programmers and dozens of companies have contributed to Linux. Now, as Mac users we tend to see Linux as a threat. Nothing could be farther from the truth. One of the core values of GNU software and Linux is portability. This includes efforts to maintain Linux and GNU software for the on the PowerPC processor as well as porting projects like Fink. With OS X’s core (Darwin) a close cousin of Linux, we can enjoy the products of the Linux movement too.
Free as in Beer, Free as in Freedom
Open Source software is about more than free code. GNUs define two types of freedom – free as in beer (free to download and guzzle) and free as in freedom (free to modify the source code, free to distribute). The later type of free may not seem as important – but it is.
Contributing to Open Source
Inspired by the idea that software should be free? Eager to join the army of hobbyists and professional coders? Don’t know a thing about coding? Thatâ€™s okay. In fact, what many say is a weakness of Open Source software is a core strength of many Mac users: design. Along with contributions of art, an eager Open Source supporter can contribute in may ways:
- GUI/Theme/Template Design
- Marketing, Evangelism and Promotion
- Contributions to Documentation
- Help in Support Forums
The beauty of community build software is that projects from Mozilla Firefox to tiny Mac freeware apps are inclusionary and always looking for help.
Conclusions, Part 1
Okay, that was a lot of background. But I think it is worth knowing about the origins of free software and the ties it has to the Mac. In a couple weeks we’ll continue our discussion of free software by highlighting its future. We’ll talk about how you can still make money with free software and we’ll identify some of Open Source’s friends and foes.
Until then, long live free software!
Note: Next week we’ll have something to download, I promise