This is a timeline-style look at how free and open source software has evolved and existed from its inception.
"Free software" may refer to either software which is available to the end user at no cost, or to software which is licensed under either a free software or open source licence as defined by the Free Software Foundation and Open Source Initiative respectively. The content of this article relates to the latter(?) type of software.
The concept of open source and the free sharing of technological information existed long before computers and software existed. In the early years of automobile development, the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers (ALAM), a group of capital monopolists, owned the rights to a 2 cycle gasoline engine patent originally filed by George B. Selden. By controlling this patent, they were able to monopolize the industry and attempted to force car manufacturers to build vehicles according to their specifications (heavy, expensive luxury cars designed for the rich). Any manufacturer they granted a license to had to pay them a licensing fee, as well as a percentage of gross earnings. At the 1905 Chicago Auto Show, a group of independent automakers, including Ford Motor Company, REO Motor Car Company, and Maxwell-Briscoe, formed a new organization, the American Motor Car Manufacturers Association (AMCMA) to collectively fight the Selden patent and ALAM monopoly. After some setbacks including losing an initial lawsuit and the dissolution of AMCMA in 1909, Henry Ford appealed the decision and in 1911 he won. The decision was that that the Selden patent, which was for 2 cycle motors, did not cover the engines most automakers were using at the time (which were 4 cycle motors based on the design of Nicolaus Otto). The result was that the Selden patent became virtually worthless and the ALAM dissolved, with a new association (which would eventually become the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association). The new association instituted a cross-licensing agreement among all US auto manufacturers: although each company would develop technology and file patents, these patents were shared openly and without the exchange of money between all the manufacturers. Up to the point where the US entered World War II, 92 Ford patents were being used freely by other manufacturers and were in turn making use of 515 patents from other companies, all without lawsuits or the exchange of any money.
Some of the core principles of free software grew from the philosophies of openness and co-operation, long established in the fields of academia and scientific research (in this case, computer science).
Software communities that can now be compared with today's free software community existed for a long time before the free software movement and the term "free software". According to Richard Stallman, the software sharing community at MIT existed for "many years" before he got involved in 1971.
In the 1950s and into the 1960s almost all software was produced largely by academics and corporate researchers working in collaboration and was not itself seen as a commodity. Operating systems were widely distributed and maintained by the community of users. Source code, the human-readable version of software, was distributed with software because users frequently modified the software themselves to fix bugs or add new functionality. An IBM mainframe operating system, Airline Control Program (ACP), from 1967 reportedly distributed its source code in a way very similar to free software.
User groups such as that of the IBM 701, called SHARE, and that of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), called DECUS were formed to facilitate the exchange of software. Thus in this era, software was free in a sense, not because of any concerted effort by software users or developers, but rather because software was developed by the user community. By the late 1960s change was coming: as operating systems and programming language compilers evolved, manufacturer's software costs were dramatically increasing. A nascent, albeit growing software industry was competing with the hardware manufacturer's bundled software products (the cost of bundled products was included in the hardware cost), leased machines required software support while providing no revenue for software, and some customers able to better meet their own needs did not want the costs of manufacturer's software to be bundled with hardware product costs. In the United State vs. IBM antitrust suit, filed January 17, 1969, the U.S. government charged that bundled software was anticompetitive. While some software continued to come at no cost, there was a growing amount of software that was for sale only.
In the 1970s AT&T distributed early versions of UNIX at no cost to government and academic researchers, but these versions did not come with permission to redistribute or to distribute modified versions, and were thus not free software in the modern meaning of the phrase.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, computer vendors and software-only companies began routinely charging for software licences, marketing it as "Program Products" and imposing legal restrictions on new software developments, now seen as assets, through copyrights, trademarks, and leasing contracts. In 1976 Bill Gates signaled the change of the times when he wrote his now-famous Open Letter to Hobbyists, sending out the message that what hackers called "sharing" was, in his words, "stealing". In 1979, AT&T, for example, began to enforce its restrictive licences when the company decided it might profit by selling the Unix system.
The advent of Usenet in the early 1980s further connected the programming community and provided a simpler way for programmers to share their software and contribute to software others had written.
Some free software which was developed in the 70s and early 80s which continues to be used includes SPICE,, TeX (developed by Donald Knuth), and the X Window System. The W Window System provided a start for the X Window System, but differed in several fundamental ways. Development of the X Window System was concurrent with the GNU project, but GNU was in no way responsible for the X Window System.
In 1983, Richard Stallman launched the GNU Project to write a complete operating system free from constraints on use of its source code. Particular incidents that motivated this include a case where an annoying printer couldn't be fixed because the source code was withheld from users. Another probable inspiration for the GNU project and its manifesto was a disagreement between Stallman and Symbolics, Inc. over MIT's access to updates Symbolics had made to its Lisp machine, which was based on MIT code. Soon after the launch, he coined the term "free software" and founded the Free Software Foundation to promote the concept and a free software definition was published in February 1986.
The GNU project's kernel, later called "GNU Hurd", was continually delayed, but most other components were completed by 1991. Some of these, especially the GNU Compiler Collection, had become market leaders in their own right. The GNU Debugger and GNU Emacs were also notable successes.
The Linux kernel, started by Linus Torvalds, was released as freely modifiable source code in 1991. The licence wasn't exactly a free software license, but with version 0.12 in February 1992, he relicensed the project under the GNU General Public License. Much like Unix, Torvalds' kernel attracted the attention of volunteer programmers.
Until this point, the GNU project's lack of a kernel meant that no complete free software operating systems existed. The development of Torvalds' kernel closed that last gap. The combination of the almost-finished GNU operating system and the Linux kernel made the first complete free software operating system.
Among Linux distributions, Debian GNU/Linux, begun by Ian Murdock in 1993, is noteworthy for being explicitly committed to the GNU and FSF principles of free software. The Debian developers' principles are expressed in the Debian Social Contract. Since its inception, the Debian project has been closely linked with the FSF, and in fact was sponsored by the FSF for a year in 1994-5. In 1997, former Debian project leader Bruce Perens also helped found Software in the Public Interest, a non-profit funding and support organization for various free software projects.
GNU/Linux remains free software under the terms of the GNU GPL, but many businesses offer customized Linux-based products, or distributions, with commercial support. The naming remains controversial between the open source and the free software community, with groups arguing for either "Linux"(the open source and general name) or "GNU/Linux"(free software's name) for the whole operating system.
When the USL v. BSDi lawsuit was settled out of court in 1993, FreeBSD and NetBSD (both derived from 386BSD) were released as free software. OpenBSD forked from NetBSD in 1995. Other more recent forks also exist.
In the mid to late 90s, when many website-based companies were starting up, free software became a popular choice for web servers. Apache HTTP Server became the most used web server software - a title that still holds as of 2008. Systems based on a common "stack" of software with the Linux kernel at the base, Apache providing web services, the MySQL database engine for data storage, and the PHP programming language binding it all together, came to be known as LAMP(called GLAMP by the free software community, see GNU/Linux naming controversy) systems.
In 1997, Eric Raymond published The Cathedral and the Bazaar, a reflective analysis of the hacker community and free software principles. The paper received significant attention in early 1998 and was one factor in motivating Netscape Communications Corporation to release their popular Netscape Communicator Internet suite as free software. This code is today better known as Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird.
Netscape's act prompted Raymond and others to look into how to bring free software principles and benefits to the commercial software industry. They concluded that FSF's social activism was not appealing to companies like Netscape, and looked for a way to rebrand the free software movement to emphasize the business potential of the sharing of source code. The new name they chose was "open source," and quickly Bruce Perens, publisher Tim O'Reilly, Linus Torvalds, and others signed on to the rebranding. The Open Source Initiative was founded in February 1998 to encourage use of the new term and evangelize open source principles.
However, Richard Stallman and the FSF harshly objected to the new organization's approach. They felt that, with its narrow focus on source code, OSI was burying the philosophical and social values of free software and hiding the issue of computer users' freedom. Stallman still maintained, however, that users of each term were allies in the fight against proprietary software.
In August 1999, Sun Microsystems released the StarOffice office suite as free software under the GNU Lesser General Public License. The free software version was renamed OpenOffice.org, and coexists with StarOffice.
X has become the de facto window system in free software.
KDE was founded in 1996 by Matthias Ettrich. At the time, he was troubled by the inconsistencies in UNIX applications. He proposed a new desktop environment. He also wanted to make this desktop easy to use. His initial Usenet post spurred a lot of interest.
Ettrich chose to use the Qt toolkit for the KDE project. At the time, Qt did not use a free software licence. Members of the GNU project became concerned with the use of such a toolkit for building a free software desktop environment. In August 1997, two projects were started in response to KDE: the Harmony toolkit (a free replacement for the Qt libraries) and GNOME (a different desktop without Qt and built entirely on top of free software). GTK+ was chosen as the base of GNOME in place of the Qt toolkit.
In November 1998, the Qt toolkit was licensed under the free/open source Q Public License (QPL). But debate continued about compatibility with the GNU General Public License (GPL). In September 2000, Trolltech made the Unix version of the Qt libraries available under the GPL, in addition to the QPL, which has eliminated the concerns of the Free Software Foundation.
In May 8, 2007, Sun Microsystems released the Java Development Kit as OpenJDK under the GNU General Public License. Part of the class library (4% of it) could not be released as open source due to them being licensed from other parties and were included as binary plugs. Because of this, in June 2007, Red Hat launched IcedTea to resolve the encumbered components with the equivalents from GNU Classpath implementation. Since the release, most of the encumbrances have been solved, leaving only the audio engine code and colour management system (the latter is to be resolved using LittleCMS).