7 top open source projects and the faces behind them

Group photo from the Desktop Summit in Berlin, 2011

Open source is all about people and communities

Most, if not all, of us use open source projects throughout our day, but we seldom know about the people, heroes really, who created these projects and in some cases are still maintaining them.

For this list I have chosen some very popular projects that are aimed at consumers rather than businesses. I have also kept the list to only those projects that were created by individuals, thus eliminating projects like VLC.

Without further ado, here are 7 leading open source projects and the people behind them.

Linus Torvalds and Swapnil Bhartiya
Swapnil Bhartiya

Linux by Linus Torvalds

Linux was founded by Linus Torvalds back in 1991. Today, it is used virtually everywhere around us -- from mission critical stock exchanges to mobile devices. Linux has also helped the adoption and growth of open source, as enterprise customers have gotten comfortable with it and as a result grew comfortable with open source in general.

One factor in Linux's popularity is its ability to power anything from a tiny router to the most powerful supercomputers of the world (Windows and Mac OS X can’t scale to this level). A second factor is the use of the GNU GPL licence, which Torvalds said is a great licence because it allows greater collaboration and merging changes to the main project.

Richard Stallman and Swapnil Bhartiya
Swapnil Bhartiya

GNU Project by Richard M Stallman

GNU Project was _the_ project that wanted to create a fully ‘free software’ alternative to proprietary operating systems. It was founded by Richard Matthew Stallman on September 27, 1983 at MIT. GNU Project had developed all the needed components except for the kernel, which they called Hurd. When Torvalds came out with Linux, they used this kernel for the project and the operating system GNU/Linux or GNU + Linux was created. Today, people simply call it Linux for ease.

Stallman is known for being the author of GNU GPL, one of the most popular licences used by major open source projects, including the Linux kernel. He also founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF) to promote ‘free software’ (he doesn’t use the term open source) and authored many free software projects, including Emacs.

KDE founder Matthias Ettrich

KDE by Matthias Ettrich

KDE, or K Desktop Environment as it was known in the early days, was founded by Matthias Ettrich in 1996. He wanted to create "not merely a set of applications but a desktop environment in which users could expect things to look, feel, and work consistently."

KDE has been evolving ever since and has often experienced branding conflict. Today KDE doesn’t represent the desktop environment, it has grown up to become a community -- The KDE Community.

Swapnil Bhartiya and Gnome co-founder Miguel de Icaza
Swapnil Bhartiya

Gnome by Miguel de Icaza and Federico Mena

Gnome was co-founded by Miguel de Icaza and Federico Mena in 1997 as a response to KDE's use of proprietary components. A fully 'free software' project was needed and Gnome stepped in.

Gnome took a totally opposite route from KDE Software and instead of offering endless customization options to users, chose a very simplified user interface. This ease of use made Gnome extremely popular among new Linux users or those who wanted a system that "just worked". Even Linus Torvalds uses Gnome, though he is not very happy with the overly simplified user interface and once criticized Gnome developers by saying, “If you think your users are idiots, only idiots will use it.”

Firefox co-founder Brendan Eich

Mozilla Firefox by co-founder Brendan Eich

Firefox is among the most popular web browsers and is available for Linux, Mac OS X, Windows and Android. It's a project by the Mozilla Foundation/Corporation, which was co-founded by JavaScript creator Brendan Eich.

Firefox became extremely popular for supporting and adopting newer and open standard technologies, while both Internet Explorer and Safari remained hostile towards them. Another factor that contributed to the popularization of Firefox were extensions or addons that allowed users to add more features and functionality to the browser.

Firefox is now the second most popular browser, following Google Chrome.

GIMP co-creator Spencer Kimball

GIMP by Spencer Kimball and Peter Mattis

GIMP is an open source image editing program created by Spencer Kimball and Peter Mattis in 1995 as part of a project at the University of California, Berkeley. The project was originally named General Image Manipulation Program and later renamed to GNU Image Manipulation Program after getting permission from Richard Stallman.

Today, GIMP is available across Linux, OS X, and Windows and users can add more functionality and features to GIMP by using extensions or addons, similar to Photoshop

GIMP is part of GNU Project, which sponsors and supports many free software projects.

Blender creator Ton Roosendaal

Blender by Ton Roosendaal

Blender is a 3D creation suite created by Ton Roosendaal for animation studio Neo Geo and Not a Number Technologies (NaN). Originally, Blender was non-free software, but when NaN went bankrupt in 2002, Roosendaal started the drive to make Blender an open source project.

According to the Blender website, "it supports the entirety of the 3D pipeline—modeling, rigging, animation, simulation, rendering, compositing and motion tracking, even video editing and game creation." Given the cost of 3d creation suite Blender is heavily used by those who want to get into 3D.

Blender is also released in GNU GPLv2 licence.