Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the promulgation of the term “open source”. Three days before that, Christine Peterson published How I coined the term ‘open source’ which apparently she hd written on 2006 but been sitting on since.
This is my addition to the history; I tried to leave an earlier version as a comment on her post but it disappeared into a moderation queue and hasn’t come out.
The most important point: Chris’s report accurately matches my recollection of events and I fully endorse it. There are, however, a few points of historical interest that can be added.
First, a point of fact. Chris doesn’t remember for sure whether it was me or Todd Anderson that first brought up the need for a new umbrella term to replace “free software”.
It was me, and it was me for a reason. In those very early days I was ahead of the rest of our leadership in understanding a few critical things about our new circumstances. Others eventually did catch up, but at the time of this meeting I think I was the only person there who had fully grasped that what we needed to take our folkways mainstream we needed a full-fledged marketing and rebranding campaign.
That insight was driving my thinking, and led me directly to the conclusion that we needed a better label for the brand.
It was a little tricky for me to talk about this insight explicitly, and I mostly didn’t. Because I also knew that in the minds of the people in that room, and most other hackers, “marketing and rebranding” was a negative idea heavily tied to fakery and insincerity. I couldn’t blame them for this; I’d had to struggle with the concept myself before making some peace with it. But…I was unable to evade the historical moment, and saw what was needed.
Therefore, I had the dual challenge of trying to lead a rebranding campaign while easing hackers into comfort with the idea of rebranding. That meant not pushing too hard or too fast – choosing my interventions carefully and allowing other people to catch up with the implications in their own ways.
Chris couldn’t read my mind, so she had no way to know that I spotted “open source” as the winner we were looking for the first or second time the phrase was mentioned – well before I explicitly advocated for it myself. It seemed perfect to me – ideologically neutral, easy to parse, and with just enough connection to an already respectable term of art (that is, intelligence-community use of “open source”) to be useful.
There was also something right about the use of “open” that I couldn’t pin down exactly at the time. I knew this was an adjective with a lot of positive loading attached in the hacker culture, but I was not then clear on the exact psychology. Now I think I understand that better – it evokes the Big Five trait “openness to experience”, which we value a lot. That particular term didn’t exist yet in 1998, but the connotative web that would later give rise to it did.
In accordance with my strategy of wu wei I hung back a little and let other people there gravitate to “open source”, rather than pushing for it as hard as I could have right out of the gate. I would have fought for it over the alternatives if I’d had to, but I didn’t…we all got there and that was a far healthier outcome than if I had tried to dominate the discussion.
I’m telling this story this way because, now that Chris has admitted she was being a bit stealthy about getting the term adopted, she deserves to know that I was being a bit stealthy myself – for reasons that seemed good at the time and still do in retrospect.
The rest of the story is more public. A few weeks later what was in effect a war council of the hacker community’s chieftains, convened by Tim O’Reilly, voted to endorse the new term and in effect gave me a mandate to go out and evangelize it. Which of course I did; the rest is both metaphorically and literally history.
I think Chris is fully entitled to her happy twinge. From the perspective of twenty years later, “open source” was a smashing success, fully justifying both her and my hopes for what we could do with this rebranding.
Without Chris, I would have had to come up with something as good as “open source” myself in order to get the mission done. Maybe I would have, maybe not. I’m glad we didn’t have to roll those dice; I’m glad Chris nailed it for all of us.
Ever since I was first reminded that it was her coinage I’ve been careful to credit Chris for it. I was impressed with her for the invention, and that developed into a friendship that we both value.