Technology We’re Thankful For: Open Source

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Imagine a world without open source technology. What would be missing from your life?

If your mind went directly to Apache, Ngnix, Linux, or Firefox, you’re right. There certainly would be some sad people out there. Maybe not about Apache, but definitely the other three. (We kid. We kid.)

Did the internet make your list? If not, here’s something for you: no open source; no Internet. You might be thinking, “Wait, didn’t the internet inspire open source software?” I think we have a chicken-egg scenario.

Yes, Richard Stallman led the free software movement in the 1980s, which more or less turned into the open source movement by 1998. Those were certainly important moments, but only the latest milestones on a long timeline of technical professionals attempting to wrest control away from monolithic organizations.

On this Thanksgiving holiday, here are a few events we’re thankful took place on the road to open source technology.

Fighting the Power Since 1879

Open source isn’t like the other technologies we highlighted this week: firewalls, routes and switches, or containers. Open source is an ideology that arose much earlier than you probably thought, in the most boring of places.

Just like Agile, open source was born out of the manufacturing world. But we aren’t talking 1980s, Toyota-type processes. We’re talking about the birth of industrialism. Back in the 19th century, manufacturing was — shall we say — chaotic.

Without standardization, every manufacturer had to make their own components from scratch. In 1864, one engineer said, “Hey guys, let’s standardize screws. Because this setup sucks.” It sounds trivial, but think about it. You wouldn’t be able to just order a crate of eight-gauge, 21 threaded bolts.

You’d have to basically build everything to your specifications. Imagine building a bicycle from scratch. We don’t mean put one together with instructions. We mean creating each part individually. Yikes.

Why does this matter? Screw standardization was among the first industry standards in modern times. Slowly, the manufacturing industry came together, pooling resources and knowledge.

By doing so, manufacturers weren’t tripping over themselves attempting to build their own version of their widget from scratch in a closed environment. They innovated from a baseline. If this sounds like the “with enough eyes, all bugs are shallow” mantra of Linux and other open source technologies, you’re right.

We’re thankful they shared information because they created a culture of efficiency and logic in the chaos of newly-formed industrialization. Since then, it has been the standard for new industries to undergo the same transition into maturity guided by trade organizations.

For the internet, that was the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Beating Down the OSI Model

Back in the 19th century, men in top hats got together to talk about the ideal dimensions of screws. Fast forward to 1983, when ISO tried to do for the internet what that engineer did for screws. They tried (and failed) to standardize Internet protocols under their model, the OSI Model. Sound familiar?

If you’ve ever taken the CompTIA Network+ or CCNA exams, it should. Here’s a quick recap:

Basically, ISO tried to implement a completely open, free protocol to govern the internet, ironically wresting it from the hands of the U.S. government. Many users of the nascent internet looked at it and said, “This is cool, but we’ll stick with TCP.” A decade-long flame war erupted between TCP and OSI users. It got nasty.

In an interesting paradox, the U.S. military-created, closed protocol TCP eventually won as the host protocol, while the OSI model emerged as the framework for protocols not yet created.

Even more interesting, TCP actually won in part because it was freely available to the public despite its closed origins in the highly bureaucratic military. The OSI model was completely open, better planned, and fully featured, but expensive. Does that sound like OpenOffice versus Word to anyone else?

You can read more about the development of TCP/IP in this companion blog post.

Despite its closed beginnings, the modern Internet adopted the mantle of openness previously assigned to the OSI model. Today it stands as a symbol of open networks, open dialogue, and unfettered access to information.

From that origin myth, it’s easy to extend those values to culture, organization, and products of the Internet. Perhaps even to open source software.

We’re thankful that it turned out the way it did.

Openly Taking Aim at IBM

If you’re thankful for Github, Wireshark, Linux, or Docker, then you can thank the open source movement. (And if you like those open sources technologies, here’s a list of seven more tools.)

Back in the 1970s, Richard Stallman headed the precursor to the open source movement, something called the “free software movement.” Stallman adopted a pretty radical stance: Software should be free. It’s a strong stance, but you also have to understand that IBM was ruthless. As you well know, 1970s computers were huge, a very expensive undertaking, and IBM held all the cards. (Literally. Those computers were run with punch cards.)

As a proprietary system, you were beholden to the manufacturer for software, maintenance, updating, and even operating the machine sometimes. That’s still the case, but it was way worse. If you think the Windows 10 update was bad, read about the 1972 monopoly case against IBM.

It’s not like we don’t have proprietary systems, but they work together now. Server 2016, for instance, now plays nice with Docker and Linux (another thing for which to be thankful).

The open source movement centered the free software movement, empowering communities to build free options for many of our computing needs — operating systems, applications, platforms, and tools.

But all that wouldn’t have been possible without some key points in history. This Thanksgiving, be thankful for this fellow with the awesome mustache, this gentleman in the three-piece suit, and this guy for screws, the internet, and open source technology.