GNU turns 25

Happy birthday, software libre


No longer will the Free Software Foundation be the target of advertisements for novelty condoms, Ibiza package holidays and extreme sports gear. It's leaving the 16-24 yoof demographic behind.

Today the GNU project celebrates its quarter-century. It was on 27 September 1983 that MIT slacker Richard M Stallman made his announcement that he intended to create a complete Unix-like system that would be completely open and hackable, giving anyone the right to modify and distribute the work. The Free Software Foundation is getting its celebration in early.

The innovation of the GPL software licence only followed some years later, but it was driven by GNU's needs, and it was to have profound consequences for the computer industry.

25 years ago, Stallman saw the project as a way of continuing the community ethic of shared code, something he felt was in danger of being eclipsed by the arrival of new, commercial software companies, seeking to capitalize on work in the labs. It's not so strange if you look at it through Stallman's eyes: software was a tool that had always been open, hackable and redistributable, and now mediocre people in ill-fitting suits were trying to steal that freedom... by making a quick buck with dodgy products, and putting very little back.

One of these was Bill Gates - others were a host of start-ups seeking to take the code and make commercially useful products with the lab work. Ambitious and insecure, these start-ups all needed to explain their USP to venture investors as a kind of "secret source".

So Stallman set about creating a free alternative. Over the next few years, he created a toolchain that allowed other developers to create working, open computer systems on entirely new and alien hardware. He wrote the gcc compiler, with Richard Mlynarik the gdb debugger. With a few other tools, this was enough for a "bootstrapping" system: both the gcc and gdb were of such high quality that the fame spread, particularly amongst the embedded community. Phones, switches, A to D converters... boxes of all kinds ran on, and trusted, GNU.

A landmark came in 1989 with establishment of Cygus Systems by John Gilmore, Michael Tiemann and David Henkel-Wallace to provide documentation and support for GNU. By the turn of the 1990s, Stallman's "freakish" alternative software venture was well established and widely respected.

Along the way, Stallman's puritanical approach managed to lose him many of his best and oldest collaborators - critics argued this wasted too much of the Free Software Foundation's resources. But the same uncompromising approach resulted in Stallman's other significant achievement of the past 25 years: codifying his principles into a strong copyright licence. The GPL is founded on the strength of creator's rights, but attaches mandatory stipulations on how the work should be used.

And it was under the GPL that the missing piece of GNU - the kernel - became developed and distributed. Stallman and the FSF has been mocked ceaselessly for the past decade for both rejecting the term "open source", and for insisting journalists refer to GNU/Linux, rather than Linux. But today, it's a different story.

The words "freedom" and "community" have been grabbed by policy wonks, bureaucrats, politicians and marketeers. Taking the metaphor, and throwing away the principles, it's become a way of manufacturing consensus: used in rhetoric designed to justify plantation-style labour, cultural misanthropy and economic Feudalism, all promising to hurl us back to a pre-Enlightenment era. You'll now see Open Source freely used as a cynical marketing tactic, and note that "community development" of software is almost entirely funded by one or two huge corporations (Google and IBM).

But you can't blame GNU for the bad metaphorical logic used by the political class, or similar opportunists.

Stallman looks more justified than ever in rejecting utilitarian arguments for "the four freedoms". Software is simply a tool, and he's helped keep it open.

The FSF today celebrates the occasion with a taped message from Stephen Fry - but don't let that put you off - and a plug for gNewSense, a version of "gnoolinux" with no proprietary bits at all. Many happy returns. ®


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