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Thursday, 11 September 2008 21:39

GNU: the revolution turns 25

It's probably a sign of the times we live in that the release of a browser by a commercial organisation like Google merits significantly more coverage than the approaching 25th anniversary of the organisation that gave rise to the free and open source software movement.

The GNU Project marked the anniversary early in September, even though the actual date of its launch was September 27, 1983. British actor Stephen Fry, best known for his role as Jeeves in the BBC television series based on the works of the great Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, recorded a little video which outlined briefly the creed of the free software movement.

The torrent of coverage that such a momentous event should generate has not been seen. That's because the so-called open source movement rules the roost these days - and is anxious that people should forget their roots.

People often attribute their dislike of free software to the founder of the GNU project, Richard Stallman, and his uncompromising attitude towards many things. In the early days of the GNU project, Stallman antagonised quite a few free software hackers by his management of the development of GNU Emacs.

Stallman has also been criticised for politicising the free software movement by insisting that the distribution terms for GNU software be such that people cannot add restrictions of their own.

But those who criticise him on these counts are woefully short-sighted; the truth of the matter is that without a person like Stallman who was prepared to go out on a limb for a cause, we would all be using proprietary operating systems today.

Even Linus Torvalds, who has had major differences with Stallman on many fronts, still releases the Linux kernel under the GNU General Public Licence version 2 - and has nothing but good words for this licence.

Stallman walked out of a well-paid job at the artificial intelligence lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in early 1984 and started writing code for the GNU project because he was not willing to subscribe to the notion of writing code that could not be shared by anyone who wished to do so.

What drove him was the switch by MIT from the timesharing operating system which was called Incompatible Timesharing System to Digital's new non-free timesharing system. The change was necessitated by the march of technology - better, more powerful hardware created the need for newer software that could take advantage of it.

Ninety-nine out of a hundred people would not have had a problem with using a proprietary system at work. A large number of today's GNU/Linux users are forced to work with Windows or the Mac OS X at their offices.

The reason why free software has such a massive profile today - and has given respectability to the term open source - is because of that 100th person, the oddball who refused to bow to three basic assumptions - "...that software companies have an unquestionable natural right to own software and thus have power over all its users...; that the only important thing about software is what jobs it allows you to do...; (and) that we would have no usable software (or would never have a program to do this or that particular job) if we did not offer a company power over the users of the program."

You can call the man eccentric, crazy or stark, staring mad. Stallman began work on his dream, a free operating system, in January 1984. By 1990, everything was ready apart from a kernel. The Linux kernel, which was first released in 1991, provided the missing vital bit. Stallman acknowledges this: "It is due to Linux that we can actually run a version of the GNU system today."

There is a stage in every great software hacker's life when he or she feels that his or her contributions should be acknowledged. For example, Steve Wozniak, one of the truly great hackers, wrote a book called iWoz in 2006 in which he removed any misconceptions people had over his technical role at Apple, a company that has come to be identified with Steve Jobs.

Stallman has always sought to have the GNU contribution acknowledged by using the name GNU/Linux instead of Linux. he is not incorrect - Linux is the name of the kernel. It is a reasonable request but does not find many takers, some arguing that it makes the name clumsy. His insistence on this name has not contributed to his popularity.

Stallman has other detractors too, people who release software under more permissive licences like those which the BSD operating systems use; code under such licences can be taken and locked away in proprietary programs, something which the GPL does not permit.

Stallman's argument has always been that he is about long-term freedom; the BSD people, in turn, say that he produces software which is not fully free. They interpret the term free as gratis, its common meaning.

For Stallman, it goes much deeper than that. It may have seemed illogical at the time but he was always thinking long-term and the GNU project has reached 25 in very good shape.

The emergence of open source in 1998 as a term designed to remove the confusion over the meaning of the word "free" in free software has not sat well with Stallman. Though this was to some extent a valid reason, in some cases it was chosen to "appeal instead to executives and business users, many of whom hold an ideology that places profit above freedom, above community, above principle."

There have been some legendary flame wars over the terms "free software" and "open source." They both "describe the same category of software, more or less, but say different things about the software, and about values."

But despite all the arguments, the use of FOSS as it is often called, has grown and grown. At times, the growth has been due to political reasons, at others due to cost. But there is an overriding factor - quality.

Peer review has ensured that a great deal of the software developed by free software projects has been coded well. There are big projects (like Debian GNU/Linux) and smaller ones (like Slackware) but the common trait has been attention to detail.

Nobody can predict the future and it is impossible to say in which direction the free software train will travel over the next 25 years. Many of those who are reading this may not be around to see the next major anniversary. For the time being, we should all thank our stars for the maverick who had the courage to get the ball rolling.

All quotes in this article are taken from The GNU Project




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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.



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