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What the history of open source teaches us

about strategic advantage

Open source visionary Bob Young recalls his early insights
into open sourceand explains what they can teach open
organizations today.
Posted 18 Oct 2016 Bobby MartinFeed

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The free software movement started like many other movements: A group of bright, spirited
people felt controlled by a greater power and rose up and took matters into their own hands.

It's not that different from the American Revolution. The colonists were tired of being controlled
by Great Britain, so they declared their independence and started building their own system of
government and military, and creating their own cultures. The revolutionaries' methods were
disorganized and improvised, but they ultimately proved to be effective. Same goes for the
software revolutionaries.
And the way those revolutionaries leveraged the power of openness has serious implications for
today's organizationswhatever the industry.

Here's how it all went down.

The founding fathers

The free software movement dates back to 1968 when Ken Thompson, a heavy-set fellow with
long hair, a scraggly beard, and big glasses, built the UNIX operating system.

Thompson built UNIX while working for Bell Labs. Throughout the 1970s Bell Labs distributed
UNIX's source code. Research labs, universities, and computer scientists all over the world
contributed greatly to UNIX. UNIX was "free" software, out there to be adapted to any
communication need.

But in 1979 AT&T then owned Bell Labs, and, claiming its copyright on UNIX, restricted access
to the source code and charged money for it.

Programmers weren't happy about that. UNIX had been a collaborative effort. They claimed that
source code should be "free" and availableafter all, they'd helped build it.

Richard Stallman, an MIT computer researcher with a hippie demeanor, first became interested
in free software when the manufacturer of his printer refused to provide him with its source code
to help him make it work. From then on, Stallman made "free software" his passion, becoming a
vocal leader. In 1985 he started The Free Software Foundation in Boston, which still thrives

Stallman and other computer programmers started writing code to compete with UNIX and
called this project "GNU" (short for "GNU is Not UNIX"). He distributed its code using
"copyleft"a play on the word, "copyright." Copyleft enabled users to modify existing work and
preserve it for public use. Computer programmers around the world participated in the GNU and
other free software projects.

Proprietary software companies like Microsoft and IBM also built operating systems to compete
with UNIX. But their operating system didn't offer user-control, nor did they have features to
assist the "can-we-build-a-version-of-Unix-ourselves collaboratively?" movement.

During the 1980s the collaborative efforts to build a better operating system lacked a key
element: a "unifying kernel." The kernel enables computers to link and multi-task and is part of
the core software.

But in 1991 while working on a personal project, twenty-one-year-old Finnish student, Linus
Torvalds, invented that unifying kernel. Months later he released it under a GPL (General Public
License) and called it "Linux." Programmers combined Torvald's Linux kernel with existing GPL
code and the entire operating system became known as Linux.
After that, most of Linux development took place under the radar (also the name of Red Hat co-
founder Bob Young's great book on the subject.) The only people who took it seriously were
geeks and computers wizzes. They collaborated to solve each other's problems, much like
University professors collaborating on their research to shortcut the process and the time needed
to institute their projectand also to lower costs. They improved Linux by creating applications
and fixes.

Some of the early Linux programmers worked for big companies, but their managers mostly
ignored their work. When business-minded executives occasionally did become aware of "free
software," they didn't know what to do with it because it was foreign to them, too esoteric, even
arcane. They typically considered it "research and development" of some kindand dismissed it.

"This is headed nowhere"

In 1992, the scrappy entrepreneur Bob Young started publishing The Linux Journal after he'd
sold his computer leasing business. Bob wasn't a programmer, and, at the time, he was one of
only a few business-minded entrepreneurs aware of Linux's growing popularity.

"The journalists working for the big magazines in California were oblivious to it," Bob says. "Or,
if they knew about it at all, their reaction was exactly the same as my reaction in '92 when I saw
this stuff: 'This is headed nowhere.'"

Bob assumed the programmers working on Linux were setting up a big corporation to take
advantage of their work.

"When I asked them where this free software was coming from, they would use lines like, 'You
know, it's from engineers according to their skill, to engineers according to their need.'"

Right. Thank you, Karl Marx.

"I thought, 'Collaborative models don't work. We are all altruistic people and that's an important
part of who we are as human beings, but for the purpose of deploying sophisticated technology
across corporate users, altruism doesn't work,'" Bob says. "Corporations need a wringable neck.
They need to know there's a 1-800 number standing behind their bright kids who are deploying
this stuff. And the people have to be able to pay their mortgages if they're going to continue to
work on this. There was no corporation behind this free software stuff to pay their salaries.

"So, I knew, I just knew in '92 when I first saw this stuff that IBM's OS 2 or Microsoft's
Windows NT, or maybe UNIX or one of the commercial vendors was going to take over this
opportunity," Bob says. "I thought that it was a fun little experiment. Let these guys have their
fun! But they're just setting up the market for Microsoft to be successful."

But what would proprietary software makers do about Linux? They had no real answer
somewhat like what the British monarchy's dilemma with the revolutionaries.
The proprietary software makers' business models were based upon keeping their source code
proprietary. That stringent value kept corporate innovators pretty passive. So they mostly ignored
Linux and didn't seem threatened by it. They were busy trying to build their own operating

Bob was surprised when Linux and the "free software revolution" gained momentum.

"Between '92 and '94, instead of free software going away, it kept getting better," Bob recalls.
"And more people were using it, but I was thinking, 'This doesn't make any sense. It doesn't
reconcile with my worldview.' And none of the engineers I talked to about this stuff had any
concept that there could be a business model around free software. And if there was no business
model, it wasn't going to succeed."

Bob was dumbfounded by Linux's sustainability and growing popularity.

"I decided that there was something going on here," he says. "Either I had to change my
worldview and recognize that altruism does work and is scalable, (which I did not believe) or
there was something going on here that the engineers did not understand."

To figure a way out of this quagmire, Bob went on a "tour" that took him to several Linux
experts for answers: Why didn't Linux programmers patent and sell their code? Why hadn't
technology firms capitalized on Linux?

One stop was the Goddard Space Flight Laboratory in Greenbelt, Maryland, a NASA research
facility that was installing Linux. This tour stop was both enlightening for Bob and also
instrumental in his creating Red Hat's unique business model.

Goddard was making a big commitment to Linuxreplacing a $5 million supercomputer they

had bought three years earlier with $40,000 worth of PC hardware running Linux. Bob visited
there with a programmer who was writing new Linux code for Ethernet drivers. His plan was to
use the new code at Goddard, but also upload it for free, public consumption. Bob wanted to
understand why.

"You're spending real money on building these sophisticated Ethernet drivers. Why don't you sell
them?" Bob asked Tom Sterling, the programmer's manager.

"Because in return for giving away our Ethernet driver code, we get a complete operating system
with source code under a license that allows me to put it on as many machines as I can get my
hands onall for free," Tom explained.

"Why are you building supercomputers that run on Linux? I know Sun Microsystems would be
happy to give you source code if you would do this on Sun units."

"Yeah, but if I do it on Sun, I have to get my lawyers involved to find out what I'm allowed to do
and what I'm not allowed to do with their source code. If I use Linux, I get it with a license that
allows me to do whatever I want!'"
Tom had just given Bob a valuable piece of the puzzlecontrol was users' hot button, not

"So, what he was articulating was that he was not using Linux because it was better, faster, or
cheaper technology," Bob says. "He was using Linux because it gave him control over the
technology. And he had no alternativenot from IBM, not from Microsoft, not from Sun, not
from Appleno commercial vendor would give him that benefit. I'm a sales guy. I don't sell
features. I sell benefits. And he had just articulated a benefit that no one was willing to deliver
control. So by then, the light bulb was flickering, if you like."

In 1994 Linux was still a barely-talked-about solution for managing a computer's operating
system. Proprietary software firms were ignoring Linux as still being in R&D, so big software
firms saw either few possibilities in or threats from Linux. But Linux was quietly gaining
momentum, with shipments increasing to 1.5 million units in 1995 from only 100,000 in 1993.

Throughout the 1990s, more and more organizations started adopting open-source solutions. The
pathway for open was finally laid. But it didn't come without years of persistence and open-
mindedness from creative minds seeking a better way to solve problems.

Lessons from the story

And that's the story. Here are its lessons for your own organization:

Allow your big ideas to slow cook. Collaboration with regards to fixing each other's
software challenges had been taking place since the 1960s, but it wasn't until the 1990s
before the open movement began benefitting a widespread number of organizations.
What movements are slow-cooking within your own organization? If they are slow
moving, don't give up on them; instead, remain patient.

Accept the next movement's energy instead of fighting against it. Open is a here-to-
stay movement. But what will the next movement be? The most successful organizations
will embrace the next movement by taking human nature into account: spending patterns,
technology trends, and psychological dynamics. The winning strategy is to go with the
flow, listen, be alert, and remain balanced. It's common sense to do so. It's practical.

Large organizations have a difficult time changing fast. Consider all the big
companies that were aware of the open source movement throughout the 1960s, 1970s,
1980s, and 1990s. Not one of them could readily take advantage of it because their
business models were too engrained to change. Can your organization recognize and take
advantage of the next movements?

A few creative, thoughtful people can make a huge difference. To be sure, thousands
of people contributed to the open source movement, but a few who were especially open-
minded and gritty contributed most. Does your organizations have open-minded and
gritty people like Richard Stallman? How do you support them to improve your

Ask the right questions. Bob Young was a quintessential listener. He had an advantage
over industry insiders because he wasn't too close to industryenabling him to see the
bigger picture. Bob came to realize that listening to customers would be the key to open
source's success. "I saw an opportunity," Bob says. "I saw the benefit of open source
articulated by guys like Thomas Sterling at Goddard. What all the business guys working
for Oracle and Sun Microsystems and Microsoft and all the rest didn't have the
opportunity to see because they weren't asking the questions."

Discover your competitive advantage. Many organizations are tempted to push their
features instead of their benefitswhich are what people really care about. What are your
organizations true benefits? Is it control? Is it time-savings?
Strategic Advantages of Open Source

History of the OSI

Development based on the sharing and collaborative improvement of software source code has a
history essentially as long as software development itself. In the late 1990s, interest and
participation in this phenomenon increased markedly with mainstream recognition of Linux in
publications like Forbes and the release of the Netscape browsers source code.

OSI was formed in 1998 as an educational, advocacy, and stewardship organization at this
important moment in the history of collaborative development.

Coining Open Source

The open source label was created at a strategy session held on February 3rd, 1998 in Palo
Alto, California, shortly after the announcement of the release of the Netscape source code. The
strategy session grew from a realization that the attention around the Netscape announcement
had created an opportunity to educate and advocate for the superiority of an open development

The conferees believed the pragmatic, business-case grounds that had motivated Netscape to
release their code illustrated a valuable way to engage with potential software users and
developers, and convince them to create and improve source code by participating in an engaged
community. The conferees also believed that it would be useful to have a single label that
identified this approach and distinguished it from the philosophically- and politically-focused
label "free software." Brainstorming for this new label eventually converged on the term "open
source", originally suggested by Christine Peterson.

Two of those present at the Palo Alto meeting (Eric Raymond and Michael Tiemann) would later
serve as presidents of OSI, and other attendees (including Todd Anderson, Jon maddog Hall,
Larry Augustin, and Sam Ockman) became key early supporters of the organization.

Adoption of the term was swift, with early support from figures in the community, like Linus
Torvalds, and from an April 1998 Free Software Summit attended by many key individuals,
including the founding figures of sendmail, Perl, Python, Apache, and representatives from the
IETF and Internet Software Consortium.

Founding The Organization

OSI was jointly founded by Eric Raymond and Bruce Perens in late February 1998, with
Raymond as its first president, Perens as vice-president, and an initial Board of Directors
including Brian Behlendorf, Ian Murdock, Russ Nelson, and Chip Salzenberg.
OSI was conceived as a general educational and advocacy organization to execute the same
mission agreed on at the Free Software Summit held in April 1998. At the launch meeting, the
original Board accepted this general mission and decided to focus specifically on explaining and
protecting the "open source" label. Some early activism was done as well, with OSI supporting a
petition to encourage the US government to use open source software in Jan. of 1999.

Assessing Licenses
One of the first tasks undertaken by OSI was to draft the Open Source Definition (OSD), and use
it to begin creating a list of OSI-approved licenses.

The Open Source Definition was originally derived from the Debian Free Software
Guidelines (DFSG). Bruce Perens had composed the original draft of the DFSG, and it was
edited, refined, and approved as formal policy by the Debian developer community in 1997. The
Open Source Definition was then created during the launch of the OSI in Feb. 1998 by revising
the DFSG and removing Debian-specific references.

By Oct. 1999, OSI had published its first formal list of approved licenses. The OSI license list,
updated many times since then, has remained the canonical list of open source licenses and is
referred to by many third parties, including governments and standards bodies.

In 2004 the OSI added clause 10 to the OSD to deal with some issues surrounding click-wrap
licensing. Otherwise the OSD has been stable since its inception, with only minor wording
clarifications in other clauses.

Also in 2004, due to a marked increase in the number of open source licenses, OSI launched a
campaign to reduce the growth in the number of open source licenses. This resulted in the 2006
publication of a License Proliferation report, and recategorization of the license list into
groupings of licenses based on usage as well as content. OSIs report and process helped bring
wider awareness to the overall problem of license proliferation and reduce the creation and use
of new licenses.

Other Advocacy
The original Board's most notable success was to successfully position the OSD as the gold
standard of open-source licensing, and the OSI as a standards body trusted both by the developer
community and the worlds of business and government. That design was largely achieved by the
end of the 1990s, and OSI has since focused on becoming one of the free and open source
developer community's two principal advocacy organizations, along with the Free Software

Much of OSIs advocacy takes the form of quiet persuasion rather than public activism - offering
background to reporters, policy suggestions to politicians, and business cases to executives.
OSIs hard-earned reputation for pragmatism and accessibility has helped it cope with threats to
the community's interests before they reached the point of becoming visible crises. For example,
along with Creative Commons, Software Freedom Law Center, and others, OSI helped file an
amicus curiae brief supporting Open Source licensing in the important Jacobsen v. Katzer
lawsuit. It also worked with the Free Software Foundation to convince antitrust entities to require
open source-friendly licensing of the CPTN patents.

OSIs advocacy has also taken other forms, such as creating the Open Standards Requirements
for Software in 2006 and working to push governments to refer to them when doing their own
open standards work.

Building The Organization

The goal of the original Board was to build a sustainable institution to represent the open-source
community and exercise stewardship of the Open Source Definition. To this end it adopted
bylaws (most recently revised in 2011), achieved IRS recognition as a 501(c)3 nonprofit (in
2003), and set out trademark guidelines.

Having worked steadily to broaden its base, OSI became a truly international organization in
2005 with the accession of directors from Europe, South America, Japan, and India. It further
deepened its ties to the community in 2011 and 2012, by initiating an affiliates program, electing
directors nominated by those affiliates, and launching an individual membership program.

The OSI's "Keyhole Logo"

The OSI logo, which combines the "O" of open and a keyhole, for unlocking source code was
crated by Colin Viebrock.

Further Reading on Open Source History

Wikipedias Open Source Initiative page.

OSI co-founder Eric Raymonds Cathedral and the Bazaar. This paper, describing key
differences between traditional development models and the decentralized model typical
of open source, was published around the time of the Netscape source code release and
remains widely read and influential.

Steven Levys Hackers and John Markoffs What the Dormouse Said. Both books cover
the historical and cultural roots of software development, particularly the early days when
status was earned in part by sharing source code.

Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution. Written shortly after the
founding of OSI, this book has contributions from many people involved in the early
history of open source and related movements.
Linux Weekly News annual timelines, starting with the first timeline in 1998. LWN was
founded in the same year as OSI, and its annual timelines have often mentioned OSI.

Sociologist Christoper Keltys Two Bits. Available to read online under a Creative
Commons license, this book covers the early history of Free and Open Source software
from a more academic perspective.

Last revised Sept. 2012.

Open Source Attracts Talent

"Facebook sees open source as being good for business: It means we build
better software, write better code, our engineers are able to work with more pride,
and were able to retain the worlds best engineers because they know they can
open-source their work. Ultimately, because engineers can see for themselves the
kinds of things Facebook is working on, it makes it easier to attract the top
talent. Its not all altruism, theres solid business sense behind this.

- James Pearce, Facebook, Ventue Beat

"Hiring top-tier development talent that already is used to working The Open Source Way
helps us with that goal of mentoring our existing developers."

- Ibrahim Haddad, Samsung

50% said there company's participation in open source software projects helps them find
and recruit top talent.

- 2015 Future of Open Source Survey, Black Duck Software

"For some engineers, the act of sharing their code is very much part of their work ethic. They
strive to do more than just solve the task at hand; they seek to share their solution for others to
benefit - as a way to pay back into the system that supports them when they need solutions. We
get it and we support it. Being an open source publisher attracts talent and helps us get the
kind of people who already know our coding style and technology focus areas."

- Gil Yehuda, Yahoo, TODO Group

"Open source gives enterprises the ability to attract better talent."

- Lee Congdon, Red Hat

"Given intense competition for the world's best engineering talent, can your company really
afford to lock up its code behind proprietary licenses? Sure, if you're in the business of selling
software, giving it all away may not make sense. But the vast majority of companies don't sell
software, and should be contributing a heck of a lot more as open source. Smart people like to
hang out with other smart people. Smart developers like to hang out with smart code. When you
open source useful code, you attract talent. Once you've hired all those great people through
their contributions, dedication to open source code is an amazingly effective way to retain
that talent. Let's face it, great developers can take their pick of jobs right now. These same
developers know the value of coding in the open and will want to build up a portfolio of projects
they can show off to their friends and potential future employers.

- Matt Asay, Adobe, ReadWrite

"It is fairly obvious that finding quality developers on the job market is harder than finding
unicorn on the street. A lot of companies use open source strategically to gain top-notch
developers. In fact, for the past two years, the Future of Open Source Survey results have shown
attracting and retaining development talent as a top reason companies engage with the
open source community."

- Balaji Viswanathan, OS Delivers

Enticing fickle devs to come and work for your company can be a struggle, she says, and
having an open development methodology really helps. By paying full-time engineers to create
open-source products, employers can attract talent by showcasing the interesting problems that
their dev teams solve.

- Jeni Tennison, Open Data Insisitute, IT Pro

"As tech companies compete to build their engineering teams, the opportunity to be visible in a
broader developer community (or to attain peer recognition and fame) is potentially more
important than getting top wages for some. Not contributing open source back to the community
narrows the talent pool for tech vendors in an increasingly unacceptable way."

- Al Hilwa, IDC, SD Times

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