A Brief History of Free and Open Source software through the eyes of guyf4wk3s.

  • Chapter 1 (July 7, 2018)

    If what you want is an exceptionally accurate and thorough history of free and open source software, you shouldn't be here. This is me trying to tell you the things that I heard, read and saw. This history contains me in it, in the sense it will help you see how i saw things, it will have my biases- If i hate someone, read this and you'll know who it is and lastly it will not contain stuff that i do not find to be important but actually to might matter to you. So wikipedia helped me a lot in this whole thing and i have copy pasted a few lines here and there those lines will be marked in blue.

    The best place to start this would be at the dawn of Unix, Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson. They were two techies making a game at Bell Labs in the 1960s for a operating system called Multics and what happend was that they figured that most of the tools they had didn't really have the kind of quality and reliability they'd hoped it would. Simply put they hated everything that existed. So they starting building their own stuff from scratch and they ended up building an operating system named Unics. This operating system is often reffered to as "the original AT&T Unix". This event actually sums up the whole spirit of FOSS. I mean you dont like something? Dont sit around find people who agree with you and try and make things right.

    Alan Turing's work did really get a few people interested in these "computers". It was the early 1960s and there was this kid in New York named Richard Matthew Stallman . He was born to Alice Lippman, a school teacher, and Daniel Stallman, a printing press broker, in 1953 in New York City. He had his own issues to deal with as a child , he came from a broken family. His father was an alcoholic and he would get drunk and have arguments with his step-mom frequently. He really didn't like it there. But good for him he found something he liked- Computers. He got into it through summer camp, University programs for high school students etc. He later went Harvard and MIT. He was brilliant, now he had opportunities to really put that to use and more importantly he found a home there. Something noteworthy here is that while working (starting in 1975) as a research assistant at MIT under Gerry Sussman, Stallman published a paper (with Sussman) in 1977 on an AI truth maintenance system, called dependency-directed backtracking.[16] This paper was an early work on the problem of intelligent backtracking in constraint satisfaction problems. As of 2009, the technique Stallman and Sussman introduced is still the most general and powerful form of intelligent backtracking.

    Now on the contrary to popular belief a hacker is not someone who breaks into your Computer. A hacker is someone with a good understanding of computers and how they work. No, not just know how to code but understand how stuff works. To quote Stallman himself here "The use of “hacker” to mean “security breaker” is a confusion on the part of the mass media. We hackers refuse to recognize that meaning, and continue using the word to mean someone who loves to program, someone who enjoys playful cleverness, or the combination of the two."

    Stallman became a hacker in MIT's AI laboratory and worked on projects .While he was there he would become an ardent critic of restricted computer access in the lab, which at that time was funded primarily by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. When MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) installed a password control system in 1977, Stallman found a way to decrypt the passwords and sent users messages containing their decoded password, with a suggestion to change it to the empty string (that is, no password) instead, to re-enable anonymous access to the systems. Around 20% of the users followed his advice at the time, although passwords ultimately prevailed. Stallman boasted of the success of his campaign for many years afterward.

    Now this might raise an eye to some of us because nowadays if we dont have a password for an account that we use, esspecially if we work almost exclusively on a shared public system we would be asked if we were out of our mind. But what you need to understand is that during those days people didn't own computer. They were too expensive in those days to be owned by individuals so they were owned by companies or other organizations. The computer's at MIT were funded by The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the US Gov. So the machine belonged to them. SO creating users and passwords could result in profiling and monitoring student acivity. In other words, gov could closely effectively moniter the usage and data of everyone at the university i.e zero privacy for everyone. It was a you cant hide from us and you have no choice situation. By refusing to use passwords anyone can effectively use anyone's account and this restored everyone's anonymity. Stallman's issue was not with the use of passwords but gov snooping into people's lives. Another important thing to note is that Facebook, Instagram and Twitter didn't exist back then and no one stored their embarassing anything or practically anything sensitive on computers so the risk of students misusing each other's data didn't exist.

  • But that was just the begining. You see nowadays the people a who know how to actually code are pretty less. and back in 1970s it was even less. The hackers worked as a community sharing source code and software was something that was natural and happend on a daily basis. To quote Stallman:

    " Sharing of software was not limited to our particular community; it is as old as computers, just as sharing of recipes is as old as cooking. But we did it more than most.The AI Lab used a timesharing operating system called ITS (the Incompatible Timesharing System) that the lab's staff hackers had designed and written in assembler language for the Digital PDP-10, one of the large computers of the era. As a member of this community, an AI Lab staff system hacker, my job was to improve this system. We did not call our software “free software”, because that term did not yet exist; but that is what it was. Whenever people from another university or a company wanted to port and use a program, we gladly let them. If you saw someone using an unfamiliar and interesting program, you could always ask to see the source code, so that you could read it, change it, or cannibalize parts of it to make a new program."

    This was a crucial part of the hacker culture then. Stallman was a part of this hacker community. Two start ups had emerged from The AI Lab Hacker Community- Lisp Machines, Inc. and Symbolics and all they used and made were proprietary software. These companies have a story of their own but what happend is the company Symbolics hired out most of the members of Stallman's hacker community and eventually due to the lack of active members the community collapsed. In those days to prevent software from being used on their competitors' computers, most manufacturers stopped distributing source code and began using copyright and restrictive software licenses to limit or prohibit copying and redistribution. Such proprietary software had existed before, and it became apparent that it would become the norm. This shift in the legal characteristics of software was a consequence triggered by the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976.

    In 1980, Stallman and some other hackers at the AI Lab were refused access to the source code for the software of a newly installed laser printer, the Xerox 9700. Stallman had modified the software for the Lab's previous laser printer (the XGP, Xerographic Printer), so it electronically messaged a user when the person's job was printed, and would message all logged-in users waiting for print jobs if the printer was jammed. Not being able to add these features to the new printer was a major inconvenience, as the printer was on a different floor from most of the users. This experience convinced Stallman of people's need to be able to freely modify the software they use.