On the term "Open Source"

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The internet runs on Open Source Software. But what does "Open Source" mean, and where did the term come from? It's still unclear what the actual origin was, but one thing is certain: the term predates claims by members of the Open Source Initiative. I reached out to Lyle Ball, CEO of NetEndeavor and former head of public relations at Caldera for his opinion on the subject, and he was kind enough to provide a substantial and informative response.

As a longtime reader of and contributor to Slashdot, I have participated in numerous heated discussions about the origin and indeed meaning of the term in the public sphere. Some of these discussions involve Mr. Bruce Perens, expert counsel on issues surrounding Open Source software, and one of the persons who claims to have participated in its co-invention. As a member of the OSI, he frequently championed that organization's prerogative to define what "Open Source" means, on the basis that they invented the term. But I knew from personal experience that they did not. I was personally using the term with people I knew before then, and it had a meaning — you can get the source code. It didn't imply anything at all about redistribution.

After some reflection, I used Google and The Internet Archive to scan through various articles about Caldera to try to determine who might have actually been responsible for writing a press release about Caldera OpenDOS from 1995, which I discussed in my earlier article on this subject. Once inspired, it was relatively easy to determine that Mister Ball had headed the PR department of Caldera at the time the memo was released. I reached out to him via LinkedIn, and he was kind enough to return both a response and the permission to reprint it. I therefore include both messages below, beginning with my request:

Mr. Ball, I was wondering if you could help me clear up a debate in the Open Source community due to your time spent with Caldera and Lineo. Numerous parties claim to have invented or co-invented the term "Open Source", with the latest supposedly authoritative claim being made by Christine Peterson. (https://opensource.com/article/18/2/coining-term-open-source-software) Caldera used the phrase "Open Source" in a press release in 1996 (http://www.xent.com/FoRK-archive/fall96/0269.html) and as you were in charge of public relations at that time, I was wondering if you could shed some light on this apparent discrepancy. It seems to me very much like you and your colleagues at Caldera were tapped into this particular phenomenon before the leading lights of the Open Source Initiative. I grew up in Santa Cruz, chumming with a variety of SCO employees, and I personally recall the term being used from the mid-nineties. Would you be willing to help out with any information or anecdotes?

And the response:


I joined Caldera in November of 1995, and we certainly used "open source" broadly at that time. We were building software. I can't imagine a world where we did not use the specific phrase "open source software". And we were not alone. The term "Open Source" was used broadly by Linus Torvalds (who at the time was a student...I had dinner with Linus and his then-girlfriend Ute in Germany while he was still a student), John "Mad Dog" Hall who was a major voice in the community (he worked at COMPAQ at the time), and many, many others.

I think you will find it easy to get additional references from Linus and John...either directly or by search.

The foundation of my career was in open source. My claim, which I've never tested publicly, is that I was the first full-time employee at an open source company over marketing and international markets. I don't have interest in trying to vet that claim nor use it. But I was that early in the game.

Caldera was founded by Ray Noorda, after his extremely successful exit from Novell. Our mission was first to promote "open source", Linus Torvalds, Linux, and the open source community at large. I literally had an unlimited budget to fund a small team of Caldera evangelists...we flew around the world to promote open source, Linus and the Linux community....we specifically taught the analysts houses (i.e. Gartner, Forrester) and media outlets (in all major markets and languages in North America, Europe and Asia.)

The news release from 1996 was one of many tools I personally wrote and distributed to these traditional media outlets (pre-internet marketing).

My team and I also created the first unified gatherings of vendors attempting to monetize open source. I personally worked with the organizers of COMDEX to create the "open source pavilion"...then invited all of the open source vendors to join Caldera there...we did not view them as competitors, but rather as fellow team members attempting to educate the world on open source, and build multiple revenue streams that would pay for full-time salaries and research projects to accelerate the advancement or open source.

While Mr. Noorda expected us to try to self-fund our ventures through revenues, he was significantly more interested in creating new energy in the software world by establishing a new technology base that could force the very closed systems (from Microsoft to SUN...across software and hardware platforms) to work together and provide greater value to individuals and businesses. He strongly believed that those early companies held monopolies (literal or figurative) in each of the new areas of tech...and needed legitimate competition and fear of losing their leaders status to propel them to advance technologies at a fast rate...ultimately benefiting end users. Caldera was in part a philanthropic adventure for Mr. Noorda.

I am grateful to have been there...among the very first evangelists of open source...and heavily encouraged and funded by Mr. Noorda.

I hope this helps you with your interest.

You may share/publish any of this. Should you do so, please notify me so I can see the context of your interest.



While Caldera is remembered today largely for becoming The SCO Group and being used by Microsoft to attack Linux (and indeed, Open Source itself), it began as an (or perhaps the) commercial Open Source pioneer, and even its former members aren't claiming to have coined the phrase "Open Source". It would be fascinating to know what John Hall or Linus Torvalds has to say on this subject...

Thanks to Lyle Ball for permission to publish his response.


In this comment on Slashdot, user mark-t links to a post to comp.os.ms-windows.programmer.win32 in 1993, containing the following paragraph:

Anyone else into "Source Code for NT"? The tools and stuff I'm writing for NT will be released with source. If there are "proprietary" tricks that MS wants to hide, the only way to subvert their hoarding is to post source that illuminates (and I don't mean disclosing stuff obtained by a non-disclosure agreement). Open Source is best for everyone in the long run.

How long must we be burdened with ludicrous myths about the origin of this phrase?

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