An Introduction to FLO

There is a global movement consisting of millions of the world’s most highly skilled people, a substantial portion of which believe they have the solution to all the world’s problems: free information. Before discounting this simplistic idea, consider that this movement’s participants have produced some of the world’s most significant technological innovations: the world-wide-web, Linux, LibreOffice, WordPress and Wikipedia, to name just a few of the thousands of software projects that identify as free, libre and/or opensource (FLO). When people attempt to estimate the value of FLO software to the economy, estimates are in the ten to hundreds of billions of dollars. In reality, the FLO movement contribution is invaluable: without it, the information technology revolution we have been experiencing over the last 50 years would not have been possible.

The origins of what some people are calling the FLO movement could begin millenia ago with the transition from oral histories to written ones. The basic idea that information should be free from restriction is an old one. However, stories have to start somewhere and the community at Wikipedia who wrote the page on the “history of free and open source software” is most qualified to tell the narrative. They begin with the Motor Vehicle Manufacturing Association of 1911.

“The concept of free sharing of technological information existed long before computers. For example, cooking recipes have been shared since the beginning of human culture. Open source can pertain to businesses and to computers, software and technology.

In the early years of automobile development, a group of capitalmonopolistsowned the rights to a2-cyclegasoline engine patent originally filed byGeorge B. Selden.[1]By controlling this patent, they were able to monopolize the industry and force car manufacturers to adhere to their demands, or risk a lawsuit. In 1911, independent automakerHenry Fordwon a challenge to the Selden patent. The result was that the Selden patent became virtually worthless and a new association (which would eventually become theMotor Vehicle Manufacturers Association) was formed.[1]The new association instituted a cross-licensing agreement among all US auto manufacturers: although each company would develop technology and file patents, these patents were shared openly and without the exchange of money between all the manufacturers.[1]By the time the US entered World War 2, 92 Ford patents and 515 patents from other companies were being shared between these manufacturers, without any exchange of money (or lawsuits).[1][improper synthesis?]”

Software communities that can now be compared with today’sfree-software communityexisted for a long time before thefree-software movementand the term “free software”.[2]According toRichard Stallman, the software-sharing community atMITexisted for “many years” before he got involved in 1971.[3]In the 1950s and into the 1960s almost all software was produced bycomputer scienceacademics and corporate researchers working in collaboration. As such, it was generally distributed under the principles ofopenness and co-operationlong established in the fields ofacademia, and was not seen as a commodity in itself. At this time,source code, the human-readable form of software, was generally distributed with the software itself because users frequently modified the software themselves, because it would not run on different hardware or OS without modification, and also to fix bugs or add new functionality.[4]


To fully grasp the concept behind the “free software movement’ and the reason this author has chosen the term “FLO” we must look at how the word “free” is used in the English language. Free has two distinct meanings: free of charge (gratis) and free of restrictions (libre.) The free software movement is much more concerned with the latter freedom, not the former. While most in the movement envision a world where everyone has the software solutions they need to do the things they want, it’s the intellectual property restrictions that motivate them to organize, because it’s those restrictions that hamper innovation – and the act of innovation is the act of transforming problems into solutions. While free/gratis software can be used by consumers to temporarily satisfy a need, it’s free/libre software that can be used, edited, modified and resold by producers to develop transformative innovation.

While the “free software movement” advanced the philosophy of free/libre, the “open source movement” organized itself to implement FLO solutions for others. “Open source” was coined by a group of people who made their living by implementing free software solutions for clients. They found that the gratis definition of free confused people. If the software was “free”, then why did people who implemented it charge money? If anyone could download the software’s code, wouldn’t it be easy for hackers to exploit it? If my competitors can run the same software, then don’t I lose my advantage? If a community of volunteers maintain the software, how could I be sure that it would continue to be developed? Since most clients were not interested in the revolutionary potential of free/libre software, the “open source movement” chose to focus its attention on building the business case for FLO: its accessibility, the diversity of support options, limited vendor lock-in issues, etc. This approach has been very successful, but the “free software movement” saw it as a co-option of the core values of information activism – and thus resist using the term and encourage their communities to do the same.

Despite the naming wars and lack of community and brand cohesion within the FLO movement(s), FLO software has gained rapid adoption over the last few decades, and that adoption continues to accelerate. While the mainstream media focuses on the financial success of Facebook and Twitter, the technology community recognizes that the popular FLO content management systems (CMS) such as WordPress, Drupal and Joomla have transformed people’s capacity to build highly functional technology systems for themselves and their communities. It’s because of these CMS platforms that writers, video producers, schools, hospitals, governments and people of all types have access to increasingly sophisticated technology tools. Indeed, technical solutions that cost $50,000 5 years ago cost $5,000 now, and will cost $500 in the not-too-distant future. This isn’t because of Moore’s law, which states that microchip prices will naturally go down by 50% every 18 months. It’s because the FLO software community produces solutions to common challenges everyday, and in aggregate those solutions create a FLO technology commons that makes it easier and easier for people to create the solutions they want. This process has – and continues to – fundamentally transformed the technology sector – and beyond.

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