On a very rainy day in early February 1998, a group of people very familiar with free software met at the Palo Alto home of Christine Peterson of the Foresight Institute. Many in the free software movement felt that they were on the verge of something very big. Netscape had just announced that it would make its source code freely available. Influenced by an article by Eric Raymond called the Cathedral and the Bazaar, the management at Netscape came to the conclusion that this was the way to build software. Chris invited Eric, Michael Tiemann, Larry Augustin, John Hall, Todd Anderson and Sam Ockman to session to discuss the unique opportunity of publicity this would create and how best to present the free software movement to business as a whole. Chris's living room provided a venue to brainstorm on new ways to brand free software.
The heavy presence not in that room was Richard Stallman - RMS. Richard Stallman provided a Patrick Henry-like defense of free software in a "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" sort of way. Although the group agreed and aligned with the principles of free software - free to share, free to choose, free to reuse, free to distribute, RMS's uncompromising stance on the term "free software" inhibited business users from taking up free software. Although business users of free software, particularly younger, early adopters, could agree and sympathize with these principles, they were suspicious of anything free. The term was too closely related to freeware or shareware that was usually a one-man outfit that relied on the contributions of those who liked the software. Freeware did not mean that the source code was freely available, so meant that there was generally no one else to work on the product to improve or fix it. RMS felt that this called for education, not stepping away from the term free that emphasized the principles of freedom.
The concept of open and free software has actually been around as long as their have been computers. Universities, in particular, had freely shared software and collaborated between each other to create new programs and new software systems. The Unix operating system and its successor Linux owe much to this early open, collaborative and free development of software. However, up until this date, the closest thing to describe this concept, process and set of values was the Free Software Foundation and the principles listed on its web site. However, the confusion of the word "free" and stridency of the Free Software Foundation's founder, RMS, was putting off business people. All the people in the room had experienced the frustration of pushing free software. As Sam Ockman pointed out, "People are cynical; they expect higher costs of ownership with anything that is labeled as 'free.' 'If I don’t pay now, I’ll pay later,' was a common mindset I encountered from IT buyers." Even worse was "Free? That sounds like communism!" I have to admit that I fell into that camp.
The group in Palo Alto felt that presented with an opportunity as big and important as Netscape adopting an approach of free software development, they must make the most of it. They had two objectives, to help make Netscape successful in its venture into free software and how could they take advantage of the publicity surrounding this release. With the second goal in mind, they took the approach of essentially rebranding free software. Eric Raymond, who had authored an influential essay on free software, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, felt the traditional term, "free software," had been a millstone around all of their necks, and was a nonstarter as rhetoric to convince any but the hard-core believers. Michael Tiemann had been running the oldest company selling free software, Cygnus Software, and was equally frustrated. As Michael put it, "We wanted a term that was more resonant with the business benefits rather than the moral arguments."
The session was not very long, perhaps about two or three hours. Michael Tiemann advocated the "source ware". Christine Peterson, a futurist from the Foresight Institute, liked the term "Open Source". Eric Raymond carried a lot of influence in this discussion. He was the one that had helped to persuade Netscape to go with free software. He was also an articulate spokesperson for the development methodology and a self-professed extrovert. Eric liked the term "Open Source" as well and open source carried the day.
A few days later, Eric raised the call to dump "free software" and start to use "open source". The divide between Free Software and Open Source could not be clearer. Later that month, the Open Source Initiative was formed by Eric and Bruce Perens. Bruce's definition of principles of Debian Linux were used as the guiding principles of Open Source. In April, Tim O'Reilly brought together all the influencers and thinkers of the free software movement including Linus Torvalds of Linux fame and Brian Behlendorf of Apache. As is typical of open source and legalese, the passive statement was issued that "a vote was taken" to call the movement "Open Source". Tim called his conference the Open Source Conference from there on. RMS still hung on to the importance of freedom and the term "Free Software". He also complained about being "written out of history." However, the principles had generally not changed, only the tone, just as a new ruling government would take after a revolution.
With Netscape now open source and everyone other than the Free Software Foundation using the term, open source really took off. By coinciding with the massive explosion of internet and the most widely used software of the web being the open source Apache web server, open source could only accelerate. It also didn't hurt that on May 14, 1998 that Janet Reno caught Microsoft completely off guard by filing anti-monopoly charges against Microsoft. This set a white hat / black hat positioning that continues to galvanize the open source community. Although it would take some years for Mozilla, the reformed Netscape browser, to take off with Firefox, to take off, the launch of open source certainly caught IBM's attention. A little over a year later, IBM would commission the Bowen report and decide to move their tools and Unix businesses toward open source and Linux. Red Hat launched its enterprise business after acquiring Cygnus and really displace both existing proprietary Unix system and Windows systems with an enterprise grade Linux.
The business momentum stalled a bit after the Dot Com Crash, but open source did not miss a beat. The value of open source became crystal clear to a lot of people in the constraints of a recession, just as they are doing now. Open Source didn't really start with the name open source, but it certainly accelerated from that point and the timing couldn't have been better.