Open-source originals

When I began writing this column in October, I promised myself I would try not to waste time bashing Microsoft. First, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. With a bazooka. It is just too easy.

          When I began writing this column in October, I promised myself I would try not to waste time bashing Microsoft. There are two reasons for this. First, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. With a bazooka. It is just too easy. Microsoft does enough things badly that there is no challenge in poking at them. Just say "Code Red" or "I Love You" and IT managers tremble at the memories.

          Second, I did not begin using Linux in 1995 because I hated Microsoft. I began using Linux because it provided me with better functionality on my PC desktop. Open source is not merely an ABM (Anything But Microsoft) solution. Open source provides some excellent solutions that can be evaluated on their own merits.

          Unfortunately, something happened recently that demands I address the relationship between Microsoft and the open-source community. It seems that Bill Gates sees Microsoft as the chief benefactor of open source. A recent Seattle Times article quotes Mr. Gates as saying, "Really, the reason you see open source there at all is because we came in and said there should be a platform that's identical with millions and millions of machines."

          Really? Many of us older folks in this industry remember seeing Bill Gates' name for the first time in the now infamous document, "An Open Letter to Hobbyists," by William Henry Gates III dated February 3, 1976. In it, Gates tells the users of Micro-Soft's (that is the spelling in the letter) Altair BASIC to stop distributing the software without paying for it. Gates accuses the user community of believing that, "Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share."

          How interesting. Before the birth of the PC, the roots of the open-source community were already established. In fact, the notion of paying for software was a largely new concept to the home computer user community.

          In 1983, Richard Stallman announced the beginning of the GNU Project, his effort to create a free Unix-compatible operating system. GNU became the foundation of the free software movement, which later became the foundation of the open-source movement. Stallman's initial efforts had nothing to do with the PC at all.

          The PC doesn't make a significant appearance in the open-source time line until 1991, when Linus Torvalds announced a new project to create a Unix-like operating system to run on the Intel 80386 platform. But the project quickly began to grow past the PC architecture, and in 1994 the ports to the DEC Alpha platform began. Today, Linux is available on an amazing number of platforms. Microsoft, on the other hand, has had trouble going much beyond the PC architecture.

          Was open source born of the PC? No. Did the spread of open source benefit from the creation of a low-cost, open architecture PC? Sure. And for that, credit should be given where it is due.

          Thanks, IBM.

          Pavlicek is an independent open-source consultant. Email Russell Pavlicek.

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