It wasn’t until Frederick Jackson Turner published The Significance of the Frontier in American History in 1893 that Americans fully realized there had been a frontier. In what was probably the most significant and controversial piece of scholarship of the 1890s, Turner showed that the nation’s identity in the 19th century had hinged on westward expansion; now a new identity would be required.
“Open-source software” is another one of those concepts that gives historical unity to decades of bewildering change. The term didn’t enter circulation until early 1998, but in the two years since, the revolutionary idea behind it has caught hold in boardrooms and IT departments across Silicon Valley and beyond.
That idea, first set out in writing by freelance programmer Eric Raymond in 1997, is that free software developed by large, informal networks of expert programmers-working not for money but for the respect of their peers-is usually more elegant and serviceable than “closed” or proprietary software sold for profit. The concept had been part of hacker culture for years, but Raymond provided the most accessible and precise formulation.
In The Cathedral and the Bazaar, a 1997 white paper circulated on the Internet, Raymond explained how the spread of the Linux operating system had crystallized his thinking. (The new hardcover by the same name contains the white paper and two related essays.) Linux is a free version of the Unix operating system, and was written by University of Helsinki student Linus Torvalds with a legion of collaborators starting in 1991 (see “Programs to the People”). From the start Torvalds made the source code available over the Internet. As users tinkered with it, discovered bugs, and suggested fixes, a global virtual community of Linux developers sprang up. The approach worked. Today, Linux is running on nearly one-sixth of business server computers and is gaining fast, largely at the expense of Microsoft’s Windows NT.
Torvalds and his collaborators had set out to show that they could build a better operating system for free than IBM or Microsoft could with their billions. Some commentators explained their success as the result of the Internet’s ability to nurture fluid working communities. But ittook Raymond, who calls himself “the hacker culture’s tribal historian and residentethnographer,” to recognize that this was only part of the story. He came to believe that Linux had succeeded by turning the traditional software development model-based on hierarchy, central planning and secrecy-on its head.