The “GNU Project” Turns 25 this Month!

A quarter of a century of open source, completely free software. Wow! And, I remember it when it happened. Pretty wild!

GNU turns 25

“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.”

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