Stallman’s GNU at 30: The hippie OS that foresaw the rise of Apple – and is now trying to take it on article tells that GNU fans have celebrated their software movement’s thirtieth birthday – a movement that started as rebellious bits and bytes of tools, and is now a worldwide phenomena. Stallman launched the GNU Project in September 1983 to create a Unix-like computer operating system composed entirely of free software.
Today, servers, PCs, mobile phones, tablets, and all manner of devices run operating systems and applications that owe their genesis to the idea of software freedom articulated by GNU founder Richard Stallman. He founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and wrote the GNU General Public Licence (GPL) – the lifeblood of the whole project and Open Source software movement in general. Thirty years ago this month, the GNU system announcement sparked a conversation that has grown into the global free software movement.
Richard Stallman defined four freedoms that boil down to the simple belief software should be free. He felt that if his code wasn’t free – if it could not always be freely altered, improved and shared under the same conditions – then neither was he free because it would mean he lost his rights to do what he liked with his software and the computer running it. If the software wasn’t free, in Stallman’s eyes, that meant somebody else was being the boss of him, telling him what he could and couldn’t do with his machine and his life built around it.
Three decades on, what started as a toolkit of software components, became a movement that moved from the fringes to take on the IT mainstream. By 1991, the GNU team had written enough useful stuff to encourage volunteer developers to port the GNU sources to Linux, Linus Torvalds’ fledgling Unix-flavoured PC operating system kernel, also licensed under the GPL.
Today, the Linux kernel is used in PCs, cars, TVs and phones; it’s packaged up and customised by Red Hat, Ubuntu and others; it runs supercomputers, ADSL modems and Google and Facebook servers. A large part of that work relies on code licensed under the GNU GPL.
Android operating system is based on Linux. This Google’s Linux-powered smartphone operating system is now on 75 per cent of the world’s handhelds thanks mostly to Samsung. Android’s code’s licensed not only under his freedom-luvvin’ GPL but also under the slightly different Apache Software Foundation (ASF) licence. This has put Stallman in a complicated spot: criticising but also endorsing Android. According to Stallman, Google’s Linux OS is free – just not as free as it could be, thanks to the ASF licence. In an ideal world, Stallman wants us using Replicant, the 2010 fork of the Android source by a bunch of code hackers, but Replicant isn’t exactly going anywhere (working on very few handsets).