The rise of the Linux operating system, in all its various distributions, over the past few decades has catapulted the popularity of Free and Open Source Software.
Unfortunately, many new Linux users are often confused about what exactly FOSS is, and all that it entails. There’s no shame in that, and it can be confusing.
What is FOSS?
In simple terms, FOSS is software that all allows users to not only freely run the program for any purpose, but also provides users access to the code. Moreover, it also allows them to modify as they wish, as well as freely distribute copies of the original version or their altered version.
History of FOSS
FOSS is likely older than most people reading this now. As a concept, it has been around since the 1950s. Back then, when companies bought hardware, the specialized bundled software that ran on that purchased hardware was free. For this reason, a standard practice at the time was to allow hardware customers to modify that code as they saw fit. Since the hardware was abnormally expensive during this period, these customers were primarily researchers and academicians.
The term was not exactly the same used for the software back then. Instead, it was commonly referred to as public domain software. Today FOSS and public domain software are quite different. FOSS is free, but also licensed, with terms and conditions on how it can be used contained in that license. Public domain software has no license and may be used, modified, and distributed freely with absolutely no restrictions, and the creator retains no rights to their creation.
“Proprietary software is an injustice.” – Richard Stallman
In 1985, Richard Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF) to support the Free Software Movement. FSF’s commitment was to Free Software. That is software that users were free to use, modify, study, and share.
One year later, FOSS, as we now know it, came into being based on four freedoms:
- The freedom to use the program for any purpose
- Access to the source code
- Freedom to learn how the program works and modify it
- Freedom to redistribute copies
- The freedom to distribute copied of your modified versions
Linux and FOSS
We now assume Linux is FOSS by default. Still, even though open-source was six years old when Linus Torvalds released the original Linux kernel in 1991, it was released as freely modifiable source code, but not considered opensource as there was no free software license.
Linux was not considered FOSS until a year later, when Torvalds re-licensed the project under the GNU GPL (General Public License).
“Anybody who tells me I can’t use a program because it’s not open source, go suck on rms. I’m not interested. 99% of that I run tends to be open source, but that’s _my_ choice, dammit.” – Linus Torvalds
Even now, many Linux users don’t realize that not all Linux distros are not FOSS. Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), for example, is not FOSS. Red Hat employees strict trademark rules to restrict the free distribution of RHEL. However, it still freely provides the RHEL source code. A good rule of thumb when determining if a Linux distro is FOSS or not is whether you had to pay for it. If you paid for it, then chances are it’s not FOSS.
The Difference Between FOSS and Freeware
Users often confuse FOSS with freeware, too. Such is not the case. Freeware is merely software that you can use free of charge. Unless otherwise stated modification, improvements, or redistribution of freeware cannot occur without explicit permission from the author of that software.
Skype and Adobe Acrobat are two examples of freeware. You’re more than welcome to use them for free, but you’ll never see (or modify) the source code.
Whereas with FOSS, as stated above, source code is freely available, and the software is not only free to use, but users can also modify the source code and redistribute as they see fit.
FOSS, as we now know it, is a far cry from its infancy in the 1950s. The advent and popularity of Linux over the past few decades have undoubtedly aided in that maturity. Indeed, FOSS and Linux are so inexorably intertwined, one would exist today if not for the other.
Even Microsoft, a company once so hostile towards FOSS that Microsoft founder Bill Gates not so long ago complained that open source creates a license “so that nobody can ever improve the software,” has since embraced FOSS. Earlier this year, however, the software giant open-sourced over 60,000 of its projects, including VS Code, MS-DOS, and PowerShell.
Yes, FOSS has come quite a long way in just a few short decades. The future FOSS faces are as wrought with challenges as it is fertile with opportunities. I look forward to seeing the state of FOSS on the eve of 2029.