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Rebirth of the Hacker

The concept of Open Source software goes back to the early days of programming when most computers were either in universities or in large company research facilities. This was the age of the "real programmer" who, in the tongue-in-cheek lore of the time, did not use Pascal. A real programmer was a scientist, and as such freely shared his or her work with other programmers. A real programmer was a "hacker," which at the time was a compliment; like calling a chef a great cook.

Tracing today's Open Source movement leads back to the early 1970s, when the military's ARPAnet connected programmers around the country, and which eventually led to today's Internet. It was around this time that Ken Thompson invented UNIX at Bell Laboratories. Another programmer, Dennis Ritchie, created a programming language called C.

There's no question of the tremendous impact that these two humble beginnings have had on operating systems, programming technique, and application software. But along the way, the explosive growth of the computer industry attracted the attention of big business, and created a deepening conflict over the ownership of software and the needs of computer users. Who would have guessed at the time that William Gates, starting out with a cassette-distributed version of Basic, would one day become the world's richest man? Many, however, correctly predicted that big businesses such as Microsoft would have a dampening effect on the growth and quality of computer software. Windows, and its many well-known bugs, is proof.

Frustrated by this conflict, Richard Stallman in the mid 1980s created GNU (a recursive acronym for GNU is not UNIX), an effort to provide a freely distributed version of UNIX and related tools, applications, games, and other software. The GNU project continues to thrive today, due in large part to the efforts of another Open Source pioneer, Linus Torvalds, inventor of Linux. Based on GNU, the original Linux kernel actually didn't work very well. This was to change, however, when the growing Internet attracted the attention of hundreds of top programmers. Through their efforts, Linux is now one of the most, if not the most, stable PC operating systems in existence.

I don't mean to provide here a comprehensive chronology of the Open Source movement, but to make a simple observation from the foregoing overview. Open Source is refocusing software development by providing access to source code for the world's top computer scientists. Rather than lock out programmers, as big business seems to prefer, Open Source invites all to participate. With Open Source, real programmers are back in business.

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