It’s been 30 years since Richard Stallman announced his project to create a free alternative to Unix. The world has changed a lot since then, the Internet had changed and grown enormously, and Free Software has become a success that not even Stallman might have dared to dream of. Of course, some things didn’t work out quite the way Stallman had intended: The GNU Hurd kernel is still just a curiosity, and most likely will never see widespread adoption. Instead, Linus Torvalds came along with his kernel, and licensed it under Stallman’s GPL, thus making it free for everybody to use, distribute and contribute to. Today the GNU tools and core utilities, and the Linux kernel is used by millions of people every day. Whole businesses, like Google and Amazon, are built around these Free systems. It’d be hard to imagine the world today without Linux and GNU.
Below is the message which started it all. And today Stallman is looking forward, explaining why free software is more important than ever. His main theme and message has not changed much over the years: The freedom to run, study, distribute and modify computer programs is vital to a democracy which relies on technology and computers to function. Without these freedoms, we get exactly the kind of crippled products Stallman warns about: Sony removing features from its products over-night; Amazon deleting books you have bought; mobile phones and computers which only accept software from certain authorities (e.g. iPhone, gaming consoles).
However, the dangers of proprietary software and lock-in are even more sever: NSA has been shown to require back-doors and security holes to be implemented in proprietary software like Microsoft Windows so that they more easily can spy on their targets. Furthermore, centralization and lock-in to services like Facebook and others has led them to be prime targets for dragnet surveillance. This is part of why Free software is more important than before.
Starting this Thanksgiving I am going to write a complete
Unix-compatible software system called GNU (for Gnu’s Not Unix), and
give it away free to everyone who can use it. Contributions of time,
money, programs and equipment are greatly needed.
To begin with, GNU will be a kernel plus all the utilities needed to
write and run C programs: editor, shell, C compiler, linker,
assembler, and a few other things. After this we will add a text
formatter, a YACC, an Empire game, a spreadsheet, and hundreds of
other things. We hope to supply, eventually, everything useful that
normally comes with a Unix system, and anything else useful, including
on-line and hardcopy documentation.
GNU will be able to run Unix programs, but will not be identical
to Unix. We will make all improvements that are convenient, based
on our experience with other operating systems. In particular,
we plan to have longer filenames, file version numbers, a crashproof
file system, filename completion perhaps, terminal-independent
display support, and eventually a Lisp-based window system through
which several Lisp programs and ordinary Unix programs can share a screen.
Both C and Lisp will be available as system programming languages.
We will have network software based on MIT’s chaosnet protocol,
far superior to UUCP. We may also have something compatible
Who Am I?
I am Richard Stallman, inventor of the original much-imitated EMACS
editor, now at the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT. I have worked
extensively on compilers, editors, debuggers, command interpreters, the
Incompatible Timesharing System and the Lisp Machine operating system.
I pioneered terminal-independent display support in ITS. In addition I
have implemented one crashproof file system and two window systems for
Why I Must Write GNU
I consider that the golden rule requires that if I like a program I
must share it with other people who like it. I cannot in good
conscience sign a nondisclosure agreement or a software license
So that I can continue to use computers without violating my principles,
I have decided to put together a sufficient body of free software so that
I will be able to get along without any software that is not free.
How You Can Contribute
I am asking computer manufacturers for donations of machines and money.
I’m asking individuals for donations of programs and work.
One computer manufacturer has already offered to provide a machine. But
we could use more. One consequence you can expect if you donate
machines is that GNU will run on them at an early date. The machine had
better be able to operate in a residential area, and not require
sophisticated cooling or power.
Individual programmers can contribute by writing a compatible duplicate
of some Unix utility and giving it to me. For most projects, such
part-time distributed work would be very hard to coordinate; the
independently-written parts would not work together. But for the
particular task of replacing Unix, this problem is absent. Most
interface specifications are fixed by Unix compatibility. If each
contribution works with the rest of Unix, it will probably work
with the rest of GNU.
If I get donations of money, I may be able to hire a few people full or
part time. The salary won’t be high, but I’m looking for people for
whom knowing they are helping humanity is as important as money. I view
this as a way of enabling dedicated people to devote their full energies to
working on GNU by sparing them the need to make a living in another way.
For more information, contact me.
166 Prospect St
Cambridge, MA 02139