Open Source Projects that Changed the World

by Ostatic Staff - Aug. 09, 2010

To many, open source software isn’t just about getting something for free, it’s a statement about how the world should be. With almost religious fervor, open source evangelists have been fighting the good fight for freedom of code for nearly as long as there have been computers. Here are seven projects that have, quite literally, changed the world.

GNU: The grand-daddy of them all, and everyone’s favorite recursive acronym, the GNU project was founded in 1984 on philosophical grounds that software should respect users freedom. GNU is the founder of several other projects, but possibly the most important in sheer scope is the GNU General Public License, the GPL. The GNU project also tried for years to come up with a complete desktop system based around the Hurd kernel, but found another kernel that quickly leapfrogged GNU’s efforts, and was quickly adopted.

Linux: Linux is now used to refer to a class of operating system that generally uses GNU userspace tools and the Linux kernel. Developed by Linus Torvalds as a college project to clone the Minux kernel, Linux has taken off in ways that were unimaginable a few years ago. Linux runs on the largest mainframes, and the smallest cell phones.

Apache: In the early ’90s, the most popular web server was a public domain http server developed by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. That project fell to the wayside, leaving webmasters all over the world developing their own patches and fixes. The Apache project was started to bring all of these patches together in one server, which made it A “Patchy” Sever. In less than a year, the Apache web server became the number one server on the Internet, and stays at the top today. Ease of access of the Linux kernel, the GNU userland tools, and the Apache web server created a perfect environment for businesses large and small to start hosting their own web sites in the fledgling Internet.

MySQL: The worlds most popular open source database, MySQL powers all or part of the backend of many of the worlds most popular web sites. Corporate backing and ingenuity have made help MySQL make inroads against some of the biggest competitors in databases. MySQL has deep integration with Linux and the open source community,but also has a successful corporate identity as well. Acquired first by Sun, and more recently by Oracle, the corporate side of MySQL provides the support necessary for open source software to thrive in the enterprise data center.

Languages: Normally seen together as PHP/Perl/ Python, the “P” of the LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) encompasses the interpreted languages that form the glue of a massive number of sites. Wordpress, Drupal, Expression Engine, Movable Type and more are all built on the back of PHP.

Mozilla: Risen from the ashes of Netscape, Mozilla’s Firefox browser has stormed the world by showing how far a browser’s capabilities could be pushed. The first browser with tabs, the first browser with extensions, the first cross-platform browser, Firefox has pushed the industry forward. Features of the original Firefox can now be found in Safari, Chrome, and even Internet Explorer.

FreeBSD: FreeBSD is similar in functionality to Linux, but has a completely different family tree, and a much looser license. FreeBSD was adopted by NeXT to provide the base of their NeXTStep operating system, which provided the base of OS X, the merger of NeXTStep and the original Mac OS. OS X, in turn, spawned the iPhone OS, now called iOS, which powers the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. Apple’s mobile “i” devices changed the entire cell phone industry, and knocked the smart phone market on its ear.

The importance of open source projects like those above cannot be underestimated. The impact on the market, the workplace, and even our culture is so deep that it’s difficult to measure or understand. What is known though is that we are still at the beginnings of the open source movement, and that there are still great things waiting to be done. Do you know of the next great open source project? Sound off in the comments!