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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Free Software, Open Source, FOSS: Any doubts? Not any more.

I am puzzled when I hear the words "Free Software". They say "Open Source software" & sometimes "Free & open Source Software" & I'm lost in the software desert.

Maybe this is what you have to say about software freedom. And unfortunately that's not what you need to say. However It's not your fault & I don't know whose either. Letting it be gone, let's clarify those misunderstandings NOW.

At the very beginning software was free by nature. There was no restrictions. People didn't worry about hiding software source code, didn't care if some one changed it to match their needs and even if they shared code with others. But with the time, things started to change. People started to hide code for different reasons. Let it be security, secrecy or money.

There was one guy, among others, who didn't bear this. And also stubborn enough to voice against, and even act against the new growing closed software culture. He was Richard M. Stallman fondly known as RMS, who worked in MIT research labs.

Richard M. Stallman (picture: Praneeth)

RMS wanted the freedom in software. The freedom he used to have before proprietary systems. He defines four essential freedoms software should have.

Freedom 0 : The freedom to run the program as you wish.
Freedom 1 : The freedom to study the source code and changing it to do what you wish.
Freedom 2 : The freedom to make copies and to distribute to the others.
Freedom 3 : The freedom to publish or, more generally, distribute modified versions.

Based on these freedoms RMS initiated the Free Software movement. Later he started Free Software Foundation (FSF) in order to support free software movement in a more organized way. This was in 1985. In 1989 RMS designed GNU General Public license to help software developers to develop software following free software concept and still keep up with legal requirements.

The project that first took the ideas of freedom in to action is called GNU. GNU stands for "GNU is Not Unix". (You can see GNU even after expanding the abbreviation. That's because GNU is a recursive acronym). GNU project aimed to build an operating system that was similar to Unix, but unlike Unix, it was free.

Before continuing with GNU story, I should clarify some myths about free software.

Free software doesn't necessarily mean it's "Free of Charge". GPL, the free software license or the philosophy itself doesn't put any kind of restrictions in selling software. Even RMS sold some packaged software to earn funds for GNU project.

Another myth about free software is that they are not secure. This idea should have been tossed by people who are not familiar with free software culture. They say that it's easy for crackers or evil people to see the code and exploit. But in practice there are more people who are willing to fix the code and optimize than to break it. The bugs in software found and fixed faster than closed source or proprietary software.

Back to the GNU topic, GNU the free variant of Unix received lots of attention and contributions from people who liked the idea. By 1992 most of the software pieces that needed to Unix like system were done. But one major part, the kernel, was missing. GNU project had it's own kernel project called GNU/Hurd but it never came out as a usable part due to some technical difficulties.

The crucial part to the GNU system, which was still missing, came out as a hobby project of a student in University of Helsinki, Linus Torvalds. The kernel later named as Linux and it was ready to fill the missing part of GNU operating system by 1992. The combination of GNU and Linux presented a usable free software Operating System to the world since Linux was also licensed under GPL. The complete OS is called GNU/Linux but it's often used as just Linux for the ease. Linux has very much evolved with time and it will take another whole article to discuss more about it.

Linus Torvalds (picture: Siraj)

OK now I'm familiar with the term "free software". But what about "Open Source Software"?

The words "Free Software" makes a doubt in any ones mind, whether it is 'commercially free' or free in any other meaning. For you & me, the word free means more like 'commercially free'. There were people who saw this as a barrier to take the idea of openness in to commercial and business cultures. In 1998 the term "Open Source Software" came out at an event parallel to release of Netscape code as Mozilla. Later in 1998 the Open Source Initiative was formed by Bruce Perens and Eric S. Raymond (ESR) to back the idea of Open Source Software. Idea of Open Source software is derived from and similar to free software concept, but more commercial friendly.

Alright, then what does FOSS stand for?

FOSS, expands to Free and Open Source Software, is suggested as a middle ground to Free Software and Open Source Software. Since the ideas of the two campaigns were much similar they have certain differences in core concepts. People who want to go with both the ideas tend to refer to this idea as FOSS and be politically neutral :) . Some people prefer adding more meaning to this using the term FLOSS which stands for Free/Libre Open Source Software.

Hope you have fairly a good idea about Free software, Open Source Software and Free and Open Source Software. I'd like to encourage you to read more about these and understand the under wiring of these concepts. And most importantly participate in the community to get help and give something back to the community. Passionate people are the biggest strength in FOSS culture. So be a proud member of FOSS community :)


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