The (Government) Origins and Future of Open Source Software

Very interesting take on early internet history and open source, from 1999. I particularly like how the author threads together the commercial motives behind Mozilla and the ways the government used funding and procurement to effect de facto standardization.

It’s worth reading, but a few teaser quotes:

The key for making UNIX nearly universal in corporate and high-end computing in the late 1980s, though, was decisive action by the federal government in support of strong UNIX standards. The federal government itself was faced with a mess of different computer systems that needed to be networked together. Because of the close ties of the Department of Defense to university researchers (largely fostered by ARPA/DARPA), the federal government already had an affinity for UNIX. So in 1986, the government passed regulations that no company could bid on any government computer contract unless their system offered UNIX as an option. This gave Sun a huge advantage in securing a large slice of the $500 million, five-year National Security Agency contract then under bid. Sun’s and AT&T’s version of UNIX was now the benchmark for selling to the government and university markets (along with many private industry customers who would follow the government’s lead in standards). This was reinforced in 1988 when the Air Force declared DEC’s proprietary version of UNIX, called Ultrix, ineligible for government contracts.

With Clark putting up the capital, Andreesen recruited five other Mosaic team members from NCSA to design what they called in-house Mozilla, the Mosaic-Killer. In six months, Clark’s team had created a powerful browser, which the team called Netscape. It had easy-to-navigate features and loaded graphic images faster than NCSA’s Mosaic. But Netscape did something else—it included the ability to display text formatting that did not even exist in the HTML standards embedded in the NCSA Mosaic browser. This meant that Web pages designed to work with Netscape would not be readable by all the other Mosaic-based browsers. This would encourage people to use Netscape browsers and, as Netscape developed them, would encourage Web designers to pay Netscape for the server software that developed Web pages using their modified standards. It was in this later market of selling Web design tools costing from $1,500 to $50,000 where Netscape intended to make their money.

They predicted that Microsoft would soon use its dissemination of the operating system to take control of standards if Netscape didn’t do so first through free distribution.

Microsoft responded with a combination of in-house software applications and developer tools optimized for its proprietary standards, creating an all-pervasive computing environment that promised any corporation that its needs would be met.

Netscape decided that the [Silicon Valley] regional commercial commitment to developing standards was insufficient. It needed to marshal the resources of the global programming community…

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