A Somewhat Brief History of Open-Source Software

Lab Reports, Timelines

Open-source software has become a counter to corporate forces that institute consumer-negative practices (such as Apple’s walled garden) in an effort to raise profits for shareholders. As open-source software, tools, and other technologies rise in popularity and ease of use, it’s important to understand how open-source arrived at it’s current place, and why. This timeline, created using the open-source Timeline.JS by Knight Lab, takes a look at some of the major milestones in the evolution of open-source software and the movements that power its creation.

My interest in open-source software comes from my background working as a cartographer. I’ve very rarely used ESRI (the preeminent GIS software provider) products, instead opting for Quantum GIS (QGIS), a pure open-source, complete GIS suite.

Credit: Zachary Walker

QGIS’s open nature allows for the community of users to build tools, plugins, and other code-based toys for the software, creating a free GIS program and support tools that competes on all levels with the corporate players. The power and flexibility of QGIS shows us how important open-source software can be in democratizing tools and educational opportunities (imagine you’re a GIS student, free is way better than expensive). Considering my relationship with QGIS, I felt I should dig into history of open-source and explore how we got to today.

In researching the history of open-source software, I was struck by how vast and deep the history is.  Making decisions on what to include in a 10-slide timeline was an exercise in assigning weight to events as an outside observer. Copyright law and Richard Stallman were obvious choices as being the opposing forces and catalysts that lead to the creation of the Free Software Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by Stallman to promote free and open-source software. Linux (and it’s derivatives like Android) was also a must-have, but corporate investment in open-source tools (amongst lots of other topics) got left out to save space in exchange for a focus on released tools that are in common usage, like Git.

Linux OS. Credit: IJ Tech

Open-source software still faces challenges that limit adoption in some ways. Corporate headwinds and technological complexity contribute to the non-tech savvy’s lack of knowledge in the sphere of open-source software. Open-source tools managed by large corporate entities, like Android, help to break down these walls.