next up previous contents
Next: The Dark Side of Up: Introduction Previous: What Is Free Software

What Is Open Source Software?

In the spring of 1997, a group of leaders in the free software community assembled in California. This group included Eric Raymond, Tim O'Reilly, and VA Research president Larry Augustin, among others. Their concern was to find a way to promote the ideas surrounding free software to people who had formerly shunned the concept. They were concerned that the Free Software Foundation's anti-business message was keeping the world at large from really appreciating the power of free software.

At Eric Raymond's insistence, the group agreed that what they lacked in large part was a marketing campaign, a campaign devised to win mind share, and not just market share. Out of this discussion came a new term to describe the software they were promoting: Open Source. A series of guidelines were crafted to describe software that qualified as Open Source.

Bruce Perens had laid much of the groundwork for the Open Source Definition. One of the GNU project's state goals was to create a freely available operating system that could serve as the platform for running GNU software. In a classic case of software bootstrapping, Linux had become that platform, and Linux had been created with the help of GNU tools. Perens had headed the Debian project, which managed a distribution of Linux that included within the distribution only software that adhered to the spirit of GNU. Perens had laid this out explicitly in a document called the ``Debian Social Contract.'' The Open Source definition is a direct descendant of the ``Debian Social Contract,'' and thus Open Source is very much in the spirit of GNU.

The Open Source Definition allows greater liberties with licensing than the GPL does. In particular, the Open Source Definition allows greater promiscuity when mixing proprietary and open-source software.

Consequently, an Open Source license could conceivably allow the use and redistribution of open-source software without compensation or even credit. As an example you can take great swaths of the Netscape browser source code and distribute it with another, possibly proprietary, program without even notifying Netscape. Why would Netscape wish this? For a number of reasons, but the most compelling is that it gets greater market share for their client code, which works very well with their commercial offerings. In this way, giving away source code is a very good way to build a platform. This is also one of the reasons why the people at Netscape did not use the GPL.

This is not a small issue in the community. Late in 1998, there was an important dispute that threatened to fracture the Linux community. This fracture was caused by the advent of two software systems, GNOME and KDE, each of which aims to build an object-oriented desktop interface. On the one hand, KDE utilized Troll Technology's Qt library, a piece of code that was proprietary, but quite stable and mature. On the other hand, the GNOME people decided to use the GTK+ library, which was a completely free library, though not as mature as Qt.

In the past, Troll Technology would have had to choose between using the GPL and maintaining their proprietary stance. The rift between GNOME and KDE would have continued. With the advent of Open Source, however, Troll was able to change their license to one that met the Open Source definition, while still giving Troll the control over the technology they wanted. The rift between two important parts of the Linux community appears to be closing.

next up previous contents
Next: The Dark Side of Up: Introduction Previous: What Is Free Software

Download this document: [src.tar.gz][ps.gz][html.tar.gz][dvi.gz]

Open Resources (
Last updated: 1999-08-06