25 Years of Free Software

When did I start writing Free Software, now called Open Source? That’s a tricky question. Does the time start with the first file edited, the first time it compiles or perhaps even some proto-program you use to work out a concept for the real program formed later on.

So using the date you start writing, especially in a era before decent version control systems, is problematic. That is why I use the date of the first release of the first package as the start date. For me, that was Monday 24th July 1995.

axdigi and before

My first released Free Software program was axdigi which was a layer-2 packet repeater for hamradio. This was uploaded to some FTP server, probably UCSD in late July 1995. The README is dated 24th July 1995.

There were programs before this. I had written a closed-source (probably undistributable) driver for the Gracilis PackeTwin serial card and also some sort of primitive wireshark/tcpdump thing for capturing packet radio. Funny thing is that the capture program is the predecessor of both axdigi and a system that was used by a major Australian ISP for their internet billing system.

Choosing Free Software

So you have written something you think others might like, what software license will you use to distribute it? In 1995 it wasn’t that clear. This was the era of strange boutique licenses including ones where it was ok to run the program as a hamradio operator but not a CB radio operator (or at least they tried to work it that way).

A friend of mine and the author of the Linux HAM HOWTO amongst other documents, Terry Dawson, suggested I use GPL or another Free Software license. He explained what this Free Software thing was and said that if you want your program to be the most useful then something like GPL will do it. So I released axdigi under the GPL license and most of my programs since then have used the same license. Something like MIT or BSD licenses would have been fine too, I was just not going to use something closed or hand-crafted.

That was a while ago, I’ve written or maintained many programs since then. I also became a Debian maintainer (23 years so far) and adopted both procps and psmisc which I still maintain as both the Debian developer and upstream to this day.

What Next?

So it has been 25 years or a quarter of a century, what will happen next? Probably more of the same, though I’m not sure I will be maintaining Free Software by the end of the next 25 years (I’ll be over 70 then). Perhaps the singularity will arrive and writing software will be something people only do at Rennie Festivals.

Come to the Festival! There is someone making horseshoes! Other there is a steam engine. See this other guy writing computer programs on a thing called keyboard!