GNU turns 40: Stallman's baby still not ready for prime time, but hey, there's cake

It turned the software industry upside down regardless

Happy birthday to GNU. On September 27, there will be events in both the US and Switzerland to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the GNU Project.

That day in 1983, the eternally controversial Richard Stallman announced his project to create a new operating system, recursively named GNU's Not Unix. This year, the Free Software Foundation is celebrating this as the project's anniversary, and there will be two special events – a "hackday" at the FSF HQ in Boston, Massachusetts, and also a celebration and hacker meeting in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland.

It is arguable that in the sort of narrow, specific sense that Stallman himself tends to favor, the GNU Project failed. There isn't a complete, working GNU OS. An operating system is a stack of components, from the visible user-facing stuff to the kernel, and the GNU kernel, the also recursively named Hurd, is still incomplete and not ready for daily use, even after all this time.

It is a very ambitious design, a true microkernel, and very few projects have managed to get that to work well. The state of the art has arguably moved on from the Mach microkernel that Hurd uses to projects such as as seL4, as we discussed last year. A more successful example – but also still rather incomplete – is Minix 3, which runs the management engine inside all modern Intel chips.

Before it chose to go it alone and develop Hurd, the GNU Project nearly chose the BSD kernel, as Hurd developer Thomas Bushnell describes:

My first choice was to take the BSD 4.4-Lite release and make a kernel. I knew the code, I knew how to do it. It is now perfectly obvious to me that this would have succeeded splendidly and the world would be a very different place today.

This was all way before Linux; we're talking 1991 or so.

To be more fair and balanced, though, the GNU Project has been a massive success which has changed the shape of the entire computer industry. On one, low level, there are multiple GNU OSes based around the Linux kernel, including the NixOS-like GNU Guix (it's pronounced "geeks", apparently), as well as several all-GNU-code distros.

But in the more general sense, the concepts of software freedom that Stallman formalized and promoted have turned the software industry upside down. Eric Raymond and Bruce Perens found a way to sell the idea to business people with the term "open source," on which The Reg is hosted, and which we've been promoting since the 20th century.

As we write, The Reg FOSS Desk is at the Open Source Summit in Bilbao, where thousands of both beardy types and others in expensive suits are meeting and mingling to discuss developing and using software and hardware in the open, with source code that is not only available, but also can be modified and indeed forked, while being protected by software licenses that formalize the notions of public ownership that Stallman created.

Stallman himself remains an influential presence in the Free Software movement. Although he resigned from the Free Software Foundation in 2019, doing an interview with The Register before he left, he later and not very quietly returned in 2021. ®

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