A Little History

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If you are new to Linux or the Open Source Community, then a little history will be of help to you as we move forward with Linux and Gambas.

When the personal or Home brew computers first arrived in the market there where two types of programmers around. Those who wrote software for Main-frame and Mini-computers and worked for large companies like IBM and those who wrote software for their own personal pleasure on their home computers. Most of these early programmers were referred to then as Home Brewers or Hackers. They were mostly hobbyists who enjoyed tinkering with things. Many came from the HAM (Armature Radio Operators) community or were at least electronics hobbyists. This was mostly because those early computers weren’t bought in a store and they required some assembly. One of the earliest of these home-brew computers was the Altair 8800.

Altair 8800

Altair 8800

It arrived in a large brown box with bags of electronics components such as resistors, capacitors, integrated circuits and printed circuit boards. The proud new owner had to assembly these machines and test them. Once built, you had a nice big box with switches on the front panel. No monitor or keyboard came with these machines and there was no word processor or spread sheet software. The input system was a large array of toggle switches and light emitting diodes (LED’s). The computer kit arrived with a whole 1 Kilo-bytes of ram. You programmed these systems by flipping switches up and down to represent ones and zeros and then flipped a switch to load the value into ram. Making just one mistake meant your program would fail. But the Altair 8800 paved the way for home brewers to develop input systems on their own. Keyboards were arrays of push buttons with letters either written with an indelible marker or paper stickers where attached. Then came video output systems first driving oscilloscopes, data terminals, and televisions. Popular electronics magazines carried articles for constructing peripherals for the Altair and even program code. Hobbyists shared their programs with each other and things advanced quickly as developers learned tips and techniques from one another.

Popular Electronics Magazine

Popular Electronics Magazine

Then the makers of the Altair were approached by two young men offering to sell their BASIC interpreter to them. The two men hadn’t even written the software yet. They didn’t see wasting their time if they could not sell the software. But when MITS the makers of the Altair system showed interests, those two men went to work. You may have heard of them, Paul Allen and Bill Gates? After selling their Basic interpreter to MITS the two founded Microsoft. The basic interpreter required a whopping 4 Kilobytes of ram to be added to the Altair but it opened up many possibilities for what the machine could do. Home brewers started writing software that could really accomplish something. In the next few years many small computers entered the market. All becoming smaller, cheaper, and more powerful.

When the computers arrive in stores like Radio Shack, and Sears and Roebuck they still required an eager owner to write software to use them. Most of these computers were shipped with a BASIC language interpreter. BASIC quickly became the language of choice. In the early days programs where small enough to be printed and shared. However, as the size and complexity of programs grew we began storing them on Cassette tapes that had been designed for audio recordings. Disk drives were around but were rather expensive at that time. These program cassettes made software easy to share and some people started selling their software in news letters and magazines. Most of this software was games. But word processors, calculators and spreadsheets could all be found.

Some people didn’t mind paying a couple dollars to cover the cost of the cassettes and shipping. But the tide was turning when young Mr. Gates wrote a famous article on why software should be sold.

Selling software as source code was an issue. Anyone with the source code could copy it and share it or even sell it for their own profit as their own product. Prior to this people had shared the source code for their programs. That meant that they had the freedom to modify the program adding or changing features as they liked. They would then share the new version with others and the programs grew in size, complexity and power. Any bugs were quickly found and removed and so the quality of the software improved rapidly.

When software began being sold as compiled programs users no-longer had the source code to modify the programs as they wished. If any bugs were found you were at the mercy of the developer to fix the bug for you and they were usually too busy with their next project. So unless the bug was a major bug effecting a lot of people, you simply had to deal with it.

It was from that frustration that the Free Software Foundation was founded. A movement began with people who believed that software should be free and open. There was also a group of people in the middle. They liked the idea of the developer making money off his software but also supported the end user’s right to have the source code. Slowly, the software industry was divided into three groups.

• Those who thought that software should be sold and the end user gets only what they purchase.

• Those who thought that software should be free.

• Those who believed that the end user has a right to the source code so he can protect himself from a lack of response by the developer, be it paid of free software.

The two later camps grew closer together and the Open Source community was born. Not all open source software is free, but it all comes with the source code. However, most Open Source Software (OSS) does have a free or community version that can be downloaded and compiled by the end user. Sometimes a commercial version is also released that usually has a support contract accompanying the purchase.

The Open Source community has grown in recent years and has produced some of the best software out there. It succeeds because of peer review, a passionate community and the support of it’s users. Some companies make a living off of making the software easier to use by selling per-compiled versions or providing supporting services for the software.

Open Source Software now drives the Internet. Apache, the most popular web server daemon is OSS. MySQL database software is arguably the most popular database in the world and is OSS. The Linux Operating System is OSS, and Gambas the BASIC language compiler this magazine is about is also Open Source. So you are free to use it, modify it, and add to it. In fact, you are encourage to do so!

Each of these pieces of software do have restrictions. Those can be found in their licensing documents. The GNU Free Software Foundation and many others have worked hard to provide licensing that protects the developers while providing the end user with the rights they should have. These issues are beyond the scope of this book. If you plan on selling your software I suggest you read the licensing agreements provided with the tools you use.

I encourage you to either become a part of an open source project or create your own. You will find that rubbing elbows with other developers will greatly increase your knowledge of programming. Just as it did in the days of home brewing. As a new developer, I urge you to look at the code produced by a few open source projects. Just reading the code can be a real learning experience. It can teach you a lot about programming and programming styles.

If you would like to learn more about the Altair 8800 and the history of computers, you can find additional information from the links below:


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