Last updated 1 Feb 2005
In this note I present a model of software development which was adopted by the Open Software Foundation (OSF) and which shares certain characteristics with the Open Source movement, to the extent that OSF offerings, including source code and specifications, were available under equitable licensing terms.
The OSF was founded in 1988 by seven of the
computer manufacturers of that period: IBM, Digital, Apollo, Hewlett
Groupe Bull, Nixdorf and Siemens, following the “Unix wars” which
companies to AT&T and Sun Microsystems, suspected of attempting to
control of the evolution of Unix. Later, other companies joined OSF
In contrast to other industrial organisations (such as X/Open, for example) the goals of OSF included not only the elaboration of common specifications, taking into account relevant industry standards, but also the development of reference implementations of the corresponding technologies. Both specifications and reference implementations were supposed to be developed according to an open process including the following stages: Request for Technology (RFT) requirements in a specific area were defined in a process which involved consultation of OSF members, after which any organisation could respond by submitting relevant technology; an open evaluation of the submissions was undertaken, involving external consultants to guarantee neutrality; after selection, rationale was published in order to guarantee the impartiality of the result. The subsequent stages involved integration and/or development of the necessary technologies, after which the specifications and software were made available under open and equitable conditions. In practice, this open process was restricted to OSF members - over 700 at the zenith of the organisation. Although the OSF was not formed with the goal of distributing “free software” it was nevertheless committed to this open process for the selection of technologies and definition of their specifications. In fact, as I shall describe below, the OSF went much further than this in certain areas and did in fact distribute a significant quantity of software under conditions similar to open source ones.
Implicit in this model of operation was the idea of sharing of resources among the founding members of the OSF in order to develop common technologies and to guarantee their interoperability. The target technologies were restricted to those considered to be part of a common infrastructure, which would not inhibit competition between vendors in other areas.
In 1996 the OSF and X/Open merged to form The Open Group (TOG), and the initial goal of developing reference implementations of the open technologies did not survive much longer. Today TOG is focused on the definition of IT industry specifications and conformance tests for these specifications.
In this section we describe the technologies developed by OSF and examine the extent to which they were successful. Without doubt the most well-known of these technologies is OSF/Motif, the multi-window system for Unix, based on X11. OSF/Motif, and its successor the Common Desktop Environment, was adopted by almost all the Unix vendors and is still part of the Unix offering of Sun, HP, IBM and others. In fact OSF/Motif has almost become “Open Source Software” as since May 2000 a version Open Motif exists for which the source code is distributed without charge, the only condition being that it must be used exclusively with an open source operating system, such as Linux.
The other technologies developed by OSF include:
These technologies did not enjoy the same success as OSF/Motif. For example, the complete OSF/1 system was adopted only by Digital, although several other vendors integrated components (such as the libraries) in their Unix offerings, and provided system and library interfaces conforming to the OSF/1 specifications (the Common Application Environment); some of the DCE components were fairly widely adopted, such as the RPC mechanism (even Microsoft implemented an RPC conforming to the DCE specification), but the complete DCE infrastructure was less widespread.
Although it was not among the initial objectives of the OSF, a significant number of software components of OSF technologies were eventually distributed under conditions similar to those for Open Source software. Software distributed via the “OSF Software Mall” included a restricted version of OSF DCE and a version of ANDF corresponding to the GNU C compiler (gcc). In certain cases the licence terms for these software components excluded commercial use, but this was not always the case.
The OSF Research Institute (
Operating System development by the OSF RI was based on the Mach microkernel from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Versions of Mach for a number of platforms were distributed as open source software by CMU, and the OSF RI followed this tradition by distributing a version of Mach with a number of extensions (in particular for multiprocessor and massively parallel machines). It is interesting to note that the Free Software Foundation (FSF) also worked on an operating system (Hurd) based on the Mach microkernel, and in the early days of the OSF RI several members of the FSF team participated in the OSF RI workshops on microkernel technology. The goal of the FSF team was to develop an operating system “from scratch” but as far as I am aware a development of Hurd was never completed.
A version of OSF/1 based on the Mach microkernel
developed, but was not distributed under open source licence conditions
of the dependence on Unix and OSF/1 licences. However, at a later stage
Grenoble OSF RI developed MkLinux, a version of Linux based on Mach.
was adapted to a number of hardware platforms, and in particular the
PowerMac, with support from Apple, and over 100,000 copies of MkLinux
PowerMac were distributed in 1996, well before the existence of other
Linux to Apple hardware. To this day the source code for
The OSF was not the first organisation to distribute “free software”, and at its inception this was not one of its goals. The Free Software Foundation was founded in 1985, and at the time the OSF was created it was already distributing software under the GNU licence, including GNU Emacs and the gcc compiler. Nevertheless, the OSF introduced the idea of open source software to the industrial world and pioneered the concept of an open process for the definition and evaluation of technology components, which were later integrated and/or developed in a partnership between the development teams of the OSF and those of the industrial sponsors.
The OSF technologies did not enjoy the success expected at its inception and among the reasons for this are:
These problems in the OSF process led to results which did not meet the initial expectations of the founding members, who envisaged that sharing of resources would lead to economies, and that the common development process would lead to compatible, interoperable technologies.
In spite of these difficulties, the early years of the OSF were an exciting period to live through. There was a very real feeling that a new way of building computer systems was being created, embodying a common process for technology development which could facilitate interoperability, resulting in significant advantages to end users. It was not yet the open source development model, with its sense of a community of developers contributing to freely available source code, but the OSF did manage to carry the computer industry a significant distance in this direction, while maintaining the support of its industrial sponsors.
Although the OSF Web pages disappeared long ago, many of them can still be found using the “WayBack Machine” of the Internet Archive project:
and for the OSF RI :
in particular, the
The archives do not extend further back than 1997, after the merger of OSF and X/Open, but the refocusing of activities by TOG was far from complete at this moment, and the Web pages indicated are essentially those of the OSF.
Philippe Bernadat also pointed out to me the following Web page with a brief summary of OSF, X/Open and TOG: