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Chapter 741.   Brief history of free software


The need for freedom in the software industry has always been strong. Thanks to the legal deep involvement many people have shown, this kind of software has now become a possible choice.

741.1   BSD

The first users of UNIX have been universities, which - without any kind of support or warranty - low cost version of this operating system were given. It is right after the lack of support from the main company who produced it that cooperation among the different users (between universities) started to rise.

Hype around UNIX started to focus in the Berkeley University of California, where, starting from 1978 people started to distribute a different version for this operating system: BSD (Berkeley software distribution).

To protect software developed this way, the BSD license was born. This license was the first brick on which the free software philosophy was born.

For a long time, the BSD UNIX variant was strictly tied to the universitary environment or among those few companies that purchased the rights to use the source code of the original UNIX. This stayed this way until someone wanted to clean Unix BSD from the proprietary source code.

First release for the software was 386BSD that saw the light of day during year 1992 with version 0.1. This free edition of Unix BSD was not lucky, because starting from then on, judicial fights for the property of part of the code stated as free started to rise (whatever it did belong to).

Starting from the problems of 386BSD that forced the public distribution to be eliminated, many other proprietary projects focused on building a free BSD system started to spring. First of these project was NetBSD followed just later by FreeBSD and finally by the debut of OpenBSD.

Anyway, legal problems were not solved; concerning FreeBSD in particular, this type of BSD was "free" only at the beginning of 1995 with version 2.0. The following article is taken from A Brief History of FreeBSD by Jordan K. Hubbard, march 1998.

The first CDROM (and general net-wide) distribution was FreeBSD 1.0, released in December of 1993. This was based on the 4.3BSD-Lite ("Net/2") tape from U.C. Berkeley, with many components also provided by 386BSD and the Free Software Foundation. It was a fairly reasonable success for a first offering, and we followed it with the highly successful FreeBSD 1.1 release in May of 1994.

Around this time, some rather unexpected storm clouds formed on the horizon as Novell and U.C. Berkeley settled their long-running lawsuit over the legal status of the Berkeley Net/2 tape. A condition of that settlement was U.C. Berkeley's concession that large parts of Net/2 were "encumbered" code and the property of Novell, who had in turn acquired it from AT&T some time previously. What Berkeley got in return was Novell's "blessing" that the 4.4BSD-Lite release, when it was finally released, would be declared unencumbered and all existing Net/2 users would be strongly encouraged to switch. This included FreeBSD, and the project was given until the end of July 1994 to stop shipping its own Net/2 based product. Under the terms of that agreement, the project was allowed one last release before the deadline, that release being FreeBSD

FreeBSD then set about the arduous task of literally re-inventing itself from a completely new and rather incomplete set of 4.4BSD-Lite bits. The "Lite" releases were light in part because Berkeley's CSRG had removed large chunks of code required for actually constructing a bootable running system (due to various legal requirements) and the fact that the Intel port of 4.4 was highly incomplete. It took the project until December of 1994 to make this transition, and in January of 1995 it released FreeBSD 2.0 to the net and on CDROM. Despite being still more than a little rough around the edges, the release was a significant success and was followed by the more robust and easier to install FreeBSD 2.0.5 release in June of 1995.

At the actual status, all three *BSD variants are founded on BSD 4.4-Lite, with the main differences being supported hardware platforms and how the different distributions originate. As an example, the strong point of OpenBSD is in its founding in Canada, from where components for cryptographic communications can be exported.

741.2   GNU

In 1985, Richard Stallman founded FSF Free software foundation with the aim in mind to create and spread worldwide the "free software" philosophy. With freedom is meant the chance of distributing and modifying software adapting it to your own needs and to distribute even the changes made to the original code freely.

Later on, these philosophical ideas turned into the development of a license focusing on the use of the software, the General Public License (section A), this license was especially developed to protect free software and to prevent stealing of ownership that could have stopped its free distribution. Basing on this, copyrighted software protected this way is now referred to as copyleft.

Of course free software needs something to ground himself: one of the main aims that Richard Stallman was thinking of was developing a complete operating system with the help of volunteers.

Starting from this, the GNU (Gnu's not Unix), project was born. First step was the development of a C compiler which was used to build some basic system programs needed for the main preparation of the operating system core.

The GNU project gave life to a large number of software releases that could be used on almost every Unix platform available, pushing in the end free software to that kind of systems.

In 1990 the development of the Hurd kernel starts; and around year 2000 starts the distribution of the GNU/Hurd system (a GNU system developed on an Hurd kernel).

741.3   Minix

At the end of 1980s, professor Andrew S. Tanenbaum started to develop a Unix operating system for i86 computer, exclusively made for teaching purposes. Buying the related book was enough to get hold of a complete system together with sources. This brought to a problem where Minix could not be freely modified and distributed if not for purely teaching purposes.

Rights for this operating system were given to the press company in charge for the pressing when the book was released. In year 2000 Andrew S. Tanenbaum agreed with the press company to make the Minix license less restrictive, making it more similar to the BSD one.

741.4   Linux

Linux was born as a personal project by Linus Torvalds (student of the Helsinki university in Finland) leaned towards the study and development of software on i386 microprocessors.

He later decided to move studying of i386 microprocessors on Minix, with the idea of realizing something like it in mind. He was thinking to start from that operating system to make (a better Minix than Minix) and later drop it completely.

After a lot of work Linus Torvalds was finally able to develop a minimal system that was totally autonomous from Minix. The 5th of October 1991 he posted the following message on comp.os.minix.

Do you pine for the nice days of Minix-1.1, when men were men and wrote their own device drivers? Are you without a nice project and just dying to cut your teeth on a OS you can try to modify for your needs? Are you finding it frustrating when everything works on Minix? No more all-nighters to get a nifty program working? Then this post might be just for you.

As I mentioned a month ago, I'm working on a free version of a Minix-lookalike for AT-386 computers. It has finally reached the stage where it's even usable (though may not be depending on what you want), and I am willing to put out the sources for wider distribution. It is just version 0.02...but I've successfully run bash, gcc, gnu-make, gnu-sed, compress, etc. under it.

Birthday of the operating system based on the Linux(2) kernel is so 1991; as trying to establish the exact birth of version 0.01 is almost impossible. At that time it wasn't yet an operating system, but it helped to show the right path had been taken.

Linux has not been a single man project for long, in a very short time it involved many people, all tied together from the hype of participating in a project free of legal restriction, limitations of use and modification possibility. In the end, comparing to Minix, Linux's luck has been the adoption of the GNU-GPL license (section A) since the beginning, that is still today the right choice for protecting software developed and available for everybody. This way Minix's limit of being attractive for professors and students only was surpassed. The GPL license makes Linux attractive for everyone.

We must not forget the importance of the GNU project that gave to the Linux kernel all that was needed to reach the state of a complete operating system: GNU/Linux.

741.5   Open Source

Once the importance of free software had been understood and economical interests or similar intentions started to spring, the need for a clean and neat definition of what "free software" exactly is began to arise.

With this direction in mind the group publishing the Debian GNU/Linux distribution stood as an example into defining a list of requirements software needs to be inserted into the distribution.

To avoid feeding confusion with the words "free software", in 1998 the definition Open Source was born to relate to software that has met the requirements to be "free software". It partly used work made by the Debian group, but using a neat and non-modifiable name (<>). At least this was the intention behind it.

Even though the intention was good, the resulting name is even more ambiguous because it doesn't point one of the concept it should summarise. Open Source does not strictly relate to "freedom", which is the basement of free software. Open Source is a registered trademark, but this does not limit people from using these words to simply describe proprietary software which distributes source code in some way and "fool" people by calling it free software; while it has absolutely nothing to do with it. Biggest problem is always ignorance: the concept behind free software is not spread and understood like its own name.

741.6   Future of free software

From an ideal point of view, future of free software may not seem so easy and troublefree if we look at the attention given to the commercial side of the GNU/Linux operating system and the hype that comes along with it. Even if on its own all this fuss is not bad, this situation makes things even more difficult for the common people identifying free software as well as the meaning and value of it.

If you look at the people who started all this and strongly believes in the philosophy behind it, you will surely see no happiness. As Richard Stallman wrote in Why ``Free Software'' is better than ``Open Source'':

We have to say, ``It's free software and it gives you freedom!'' -- more and louder than ever before.

People who use GNU/Linux and the software that operates with this operating system must read licenses: all the stuff that carries the "Linux" brand does not mean it's necessarily "free". This does not imply fight against proprietary software but instead identify them both, especially to avoid breaking the law.

Last thing to consider on free software is the patent applied on all the algorithms and other concepts tied to software. Patents prevent developing of free software that uses patented algorithms even if protected code is not used.

741.7   A "virtual" Richard Stallman

The Debian GNU/Linux software distribution tries to neatly classify what software is included into the distribution to inform and show to the user what he's going to install. The Debian definition for what is "free" mostly follows what Open Source means. This is fairly less restrictive from what the Free Software Foundation says.

Apart from this difference, Debian work to classify software is very important to the average distracted user. You can check what you have installed in your system with vrms, a command that literally means Virtual RMS, a "virtual" Richard Stallman.

For people adopting this GNU/Linux distribution, such program can be very handy to point out software that could cause potential legal problems. As an example here is posted a sample report of the program:


               Non-free packages installed on dinkel

communicator-base-45      Popular World-Wide-Web browser software (base support)
communicator-nethelp-45   Popular World-Wide-Web browser software (runtime help
communicator-smotif-45    Popular World-Wide-Web browser software (full static M
doc-html-w3               Recommendations of the W3
gs-aladdin-manual         The Ghostscript user manual by Thomas Merz (English)
hwb                       The Hardware Book
netscape-base-45          Popular World-Wide-Web browser software (base support)
netscape-java-45          Popular World-Wide-Web browser software (java runtime

As you can see in this sample report also documentation is covered, not only software intended as application software.

741.8   References

Appunti di informatica libera 2006.01.01 --- Copyright © 2000-2006 Daniele Giacomini -- <daniele (ad) swlibero·org>, <daniele·giacomini (ad) poste·it>

1) Translation last update on 2002.02.26 from Simone Caronni <slaanesh (ad) fastwebnet·it>.

2) The original name of Linux should have been FREIX, but the administrator where the first copies of the system were distributed choose to change it using an alteration of Linus' own name, Linux, as a substitute.

It should be possible to link to this page also with the name brief_history_of_free_software.htm

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