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Context: FreeSoftware

Quora Answer : What is the most successful open source project so far, and why?

May 9, 2014

In terms of software:

  • GCC
    - Gnu/Linux
    - Apache
    - Firefox

in that order, but closely followed by a bunch of languages, libraries and several decent end-user packages.


the most successful project has been the invention of / definition of "free software" / "open source" / "open culture" itself.

The very idea that such a thing is possible and the right thing to do. Which has spawned a legacy in all the other projects, not only software, but hardware from Arduino to RepRap to Open Village Construction Set to hundreds of crowdfunded projects all of which commit to giving away their software and design schematics.

It's hard to remember but in the 1980s it was just kind of "obvious" that software was going to be (big) business and computing was going to be expensive. Even if there was going to be "home-computing" it would be hobbled by licenses that forced you to buy a full-price copy of the software for every computer it ran on. And by dongles, copy-protection, etc. With serious home software packages costing several hundred dollars and even basic business software creeping up into the thousands, most people would only get to try and use a few packages.

Individuals might pirate, but that wasn't an option for legitimate companies. So let's remember that without Linux and other free-software tools, companies like Google and Facebook would have been born "in chains". Paying a per-server operating-system tax to Microsoft or Sun. And with Microsoft more or less determining what they could do. (Would Google be able to compete when Bing came out calling undocumented APIs in Windows Server?)

In this sense we have to add the shape of the web today to open-source's credits.

Pretty much every successful service (large or small) got that way using free-software to ensure its freedom from any particular platform provider. (BTW: the next generation of would-be-giants will have to relearn this lesson and win their freedom from Apple, Google, Facebook, etc. through adopting free and open communication protocols, distribution channels, etc.)

The idea of free / open-source software is FLOSS's most successful project. And the FSF's GNU General Public License was a crucially important part of spreading that idea. The GPL was a concrete artifact. As important in its own way as the American Constitution. It got people talking and thinking and arguing about software freedom and whether code should be shared or hoarded. Even when they rejected the license as too stringent, many people had to do so from an enriched understanding of what was at stake.

For some it was mere convenience. But many poeple adopted the GPL as a badge of pride: a banner to signal that they also stood for freedom and contributing to the commonly shared wealth of networks. Today it's hard to find serious software developers who don't rely on, and recognise the value of such a commons and feel that some aspect of it should be honoured and protected (even when they have particular business models that are in conflict with it). That is an extraordinary change in mindset in the last 30 years and an extraordinary victory.