On Feb. 3, 1998, a group of people met to discuss the need for a term that would help explain the concept of free software to businesses and individuals who didn’t understand what “free software” was. The term “open source” was created by Christine Peterson, who saw it as a way to distinguish the pragmatic idea of a code base that anyone could contribute to or modify from the larger, more philosophical goals of Richard Stallman and his Free Software Foundation.
Late last week, Christine Peterson, then the executive director of the Foresight Institute, published her account of the day she coined the term. She writes:
The introduction of the term “open source software” was a deliberate effort to make this field of endeavor more understandable to newcomers and to business, which was viewed as necessary to its spread to a broader community of users. The problem with the main earlier label, “free software,” was not its political connotations, but that—to newcomers—its seeming focus on price is distracting. A term was needed that focuses on the key issue of source code and that does not immediately confuse those new to the concept. The first term that came along at the right time and fulfilled these requirements was rapidly adopted: open source.
Peterson details how Eric Raymond was working with Netscape on releasing its browser source code under a free software license. The term “open source” wasn’t introduced with fanfare or a declaration of principles. Instead, programmer Todd Anderson, whom Christine Peterson had spoken to about the term, decided to use it in the meeting and see what happened. He used it. A few minutes later, someone else did as well. After some discussion later in the meeting, the term got an informal nod.
We wanted to use Google Trends to compare usage of both terms but found a puzzling decline in both. The gap is much larger at first if you examine just the US, but ultimately usage of both declines. Blue is “open source” and red is “free software.”
It may have started small, but it caught like wildfire. On April 7, 1998, Tim O’Reilly announced a “Freeware Summit.” By April 14, this had been changed to refer to an “Open Source Summit.”
The term was initially controversial. Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, has written an essay on why he dislikes the term. Proponents of open source software wanted a way to refer to the idea that source code is available for examination or modification, without the philosophical or moral dimensions that characterize the FSF’s view of free software. If you’re trying to sell a business on adopting an OSS project versus a closed-source application, that focus may be a confusing liability. To Stallman, that supposed liability is the entire point of free software in the first place.
But regardless of where one falls on the free-and-open-source-software question, or on GNU/Linux, or on any other squabble in the open source community (some of these seem positively quaint), there’s no arguing the tremendous achievements of open source software as a concept. Just as free software literally existed before the FSF, open source software in which source code was shared with those who wanted to see it practically existed before the term “open source” came into common parlance.
From Linux to Firefox, to a thousand other examples, open source software has unquestionably changed the world. Open source software powers tens of millions of devices across the globe. It may not have done so while holding to the ideals of those that created the movement, but it’s a remarkable story of success.
ZDNet has its own excellent retrospective for those wanting more on this topic.