Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Open-Source Story: From Free Software To Revolution OS - Video

Open-source software is revolutionizing business, transforming governments and enabling education across the planet. Open-source is built on the principle that the source code of a program should be readily accessible, so that users have the right to maintain, adapt and improve the software they use in any way they see fit. Linux, Firefox and Wikipedia are just three of its success stories, which are too many in number to count. But where did open-source come from, and where is it headed next?

Image credit: Open Source Initiative (c)

The feature length documentary Revolution OS offers excellent insights into both questions, tapping into the thoughts and stories of the people that made open-source a reality.

Open-source and Linux didn't spring up out of nowhere, and Revolution OS does a great job of tracing back what sometimes seems like an overnight success story to its very roots. Revolution OS takes the viewer on a journey from the early days of the Free Software movement, headed by its iconoclastic spokesman Richard Stallman, right up to the phenomenal stock market success of VA Linux, touring the major sights as it goes.

In this video introduction to the movie, and the powerful concepts explored within it, I have gathered a handful of key clips. In these clips you can discover:

  • The roots of open-source - where the open-source movement came from, and how that has influenced its development
  • How open-source has been monetized - the key approaches that have been used in turning open-source software into a source of revenue
  • Why it works - The difference between the proprietary and open-source models, and how open-source manages to be so successful
  • The switch from 'free' to 'open-source' - how free software was adapted to make it palatable in the business sphere
  • The phenomenal success of Linux - how Linux has gone from one man's pet project to a viable alternative to Windows solutions



Revolution OS - what's it all about?

Revolution OS is a feature-length documentary detailing the evolution of the GNU/Linux and proprietary model dragged into software development by companies including Microsoft.

As the film clearly shows the early days of computing were very much free of licensing and proprietary approaches to intellectual property, and sharing programs and code was standard practice. All of this changed when the new, closed-source approach to doing business was brought into play, but a few staunch rebels stuck to their guns and continued to fight against these practices.

Revolution OS tells their tale, and along the way it dispels the myths that would associate open-source software with an inability to make money, communist ideology and poor technical support. In the following highlights I have picked out key moments from the film. The full feature follows.

Free software and the GNU

Open-source owes its impetus to the free software movement headed up by its outspoken, passionate creator Richard Stallman. The principles of free software might be summarized as expecting four types of freedom from any piece of software, as explained by Richard Stallman himself in a recent interview with Robin Good. They are:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Richard Stallman, The Free Software Definition

In the following clip Richard Stallman discusses the circumstances under which he conceived of these ideas, and the resulting GNU operating system that embodied his staunchly anti-proprietary principles. Eric Raymond provides commentary:

In line with Richard Stallman's wishes, you can download the free software Ogg Theora file of this clip by clicking here

Monetizing open-source

One of the prevailing areas of confusion surrounding free and open-source software is that of how to go about monetizing it. Surely if its free, and you give it away for nothing, you couldn't possibly claim any compensation for the work you've done. Which is fine if you program for a hobby, but when you have bills to pay, it doesn't help much.

This was exactly the point made by a young Bill Gates, whose open letter to this effect is featured in the film. In Gates' mind, proprietary software was the obvious solution. But it is far from the only way that programmers can make money from their code.

In the next clip Larry Augustin, Michael Tiemann and Richard Stallman bring down the myth that free and open-source software means going hungry come the end of the month.

Among the business models that have been used effectively since the inception of free software is that of offering consultancy and technical support for free and open-source software. The principle is a simple one - you get the software for nothing, and then pay an expert to maintain it, hack it and adapt it to your specific needs. The three explain all:

In line with Richard Stallman's wishes, you can download the free software Ogg Theora file of this clip by clicking here

The Cathedral and the Bazaar

But if everything is working just fine with your proprietary software, why would you want to go and switch to the uncertain waters of open-source? In his extensive study Eric S. Raymond compared and contrasted the two models and came up with a crucial metaphor that would have a great impact on the future of the open-source movement: the cathedral and the bazaar.

Raymond's book of the same name, originally published as a paper, was to have a huge impact on companies including the search giant Netscape. Finding it increasingly difficult to compete with Microsoft's free, but closed-source Internet Explorer browser the company took a bold move after reading Raymond's paper - they went open-source.

The result was Mozilla, the foundation of the now ubiquitous Firefox browser.

So what exactly did Raymond have to say that would change the course of a major IT company? If you have the time, the full paper is available online, but otherwise, Raymond does a great job of summarizing his ideas in the next short clip:

In short, then, the reason that open-source manages to be as successful as it often is depends upon the hundreds of contributors feeding into a given piece of software's constant adaptation. This peer-to-peer model has been just as successfully applied to ventures including wikipedia, Bit Torrent and even citizen journalism.

Making Free Software palatable - the switch to Open Source

Pitch your 'free software' idea to the CEO of a successful business, though, and she is likely to either shiver or call security to have you removed from the premises. Free software can be a frightening prospect in both its name and its sometimes rather too idealistic (for some) pronouncements with regards to intellectual property. It isn't a phrase that screams out 'invest in me'.

This is how open-source came to pass, when those individuals interested in making a living from free software, while still exercising its fundamental principles, decided that something had to give. In the next clip, Eric Raymond and Larry Augustin discuss this evolutionary turning point, after which the open-source and free software movements went their separate ways:

Linux goes mainstream

The relative stability and adaptability of the Linux operating system has seen it grow exponentially year by year. While it doesn't enjoy a fraction of the market penetration of Windows operating system in the home, an increasing amount of servers use Linux solutions, and more and more governments, companies and public sector institutions are turning to Linux as a sustainable alternative to proprietary software as time goes by.

But nobody would have guessed how successful Linux could be in the marketplace until Larry Augustin took VA Linux public, breaking stock market records in the process.

This final clip details the experience, and will offer anyone still doubting the economic potential of open-source software solid evidence that Linux is not just for idealists and geeks. See for yourself:

Revolution OS complete version

You can view the complete film embedded below, or by visiting Google video.

J.T.S. Moore, Wonderview Productions
1 hr 25 min 9 sec - Oct 24, 2006 (first posted online)

Conclusions - looking to the future

Open-source software has come a long way in a short time, and while it is still misunderstood by some businesses, its uptake in the commercial and public sectors is fast on the increase.

By offering a viable alternative to proprietary software, with its inherent issues of monopolistic practices, closed-source code and often poor customer support, open-source software is starting to make inroads into businesses across the globe. There are few that would argue that the proprietary Internet Explorer browser does a better job than its open-source counterpart Firefox, and this really is just the tip of the iceberg.

Entire governments are switching to open-source solutions, such as that of Brazil, not to mention the blue chip companies and endeavors to bring computing to developing nations.

Open-source software is proving to be not only an ethical solution, but a pragmatic and economic one. Public sector institutions are fast realizing that they can save millions in proprietary support and licensing fees, and smart businesses are tapping into the host of ways that open-source software can be successfully monetized.

The future of business, it would seem, is all about sharing.

You have been watching

If you are interested in learning more about the people interviewed in the course of these clips, you might want to check out the following links:

Additional resources

If you have found this article interesting, you might want to check out the following web links:

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posted by Robin Good on Friday, February 16 2007, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.




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