Overview of the GNU System
The GNU operating system is a complete free software system,
upward-compatible with Unix. GNU stands for “GNU's Not Unix”.
Richard Stallman made the
Initial Announcement of
the GNU Project in September 1983. A longer version called
the GNU Manifesto was published in
March 1985. It has been translated into several
The name “GNU” was chosen because it met a few
requirements; first, it was a recursive acronym for “GNU's Not
Unix”, second, because it was a real word, and third, it was fun
to say (or
The word “free” in “free software” pertains to
freedom, not price. You may or
may not pay a price to get GNU software. Either way, once you have
the software you have four specific freedoms in using it. The freedom
to run the program as you wish; the freedom to copy the program and
give it away to your friends and co-workers; the freedom to change the
program as you wish, by having full access to source code; the freedom
to distribute an improved version and thus help build the community.
(If you redistribute GNU software, you may charge a fee for the
physical act of transferring a copy, or you may give away copies.)
The project to develop the GNU system is called the “GNU
Project”. The GNU Project was conceived in 1983 as a way of
bringing back the cooperative spirit that prevailed in the computing
community in earlier days—to make cooperation possible once again by
removing the obstacles to cooperation imposed by the owners of
In 1971, when Richard Stallman started his career at MIT, he worked in
a group which used free
software exclusively. Even computer companies often distributed
free software. Programmers were free to cooperate with each other,
and often did.
By the 1980s, almost all software was
which means that it had owners who forbid and
prevent cooperation by users. This made the GNU Project necessary.
Every computer user needs an operating system; if there is no free
operating system, then you can't even get started using a computer
without resorting to proprietary software. So the first item on the
free software agenda obviously had to be a free operating system.
We decided to make the operating system compatible with Unix because
the overall design was already proven and portable, and because
compatibility makes it easy for Unix users to switch from Unix to GNU.
A Unix-like operating system includes a kernel, compilers, editors,
text formatters, mail software, graphical interfaces, libraries, games
and many other things. Thus, writing a whole operating system is a
very large job. We started in January 1984.
The Free Software Foundation was
founded in October 1985, initially to raise funds to help develop
By 1990 we had either found or written all the major components
except one—the kernel. Then Linux, a Unix-like kernel, was
developed by Linus Torvalds in 1991 and made free software in 1992.
Combining Linux with the almost-complete GNU system resulted in a
complete operating system: the GNU/Linux system. Estimates are that
tens of millions of people now use GNU/Linux systems, typically
via GNU/Linux distributions. The principal
version of Linux now contains non-free firmware “blobs”;
free software activists now maintain a modified free version of Linux,
However, the GNU Project is not limited to the core operating system.
We aim to provide a whole spectrum of software, whatever many users
want to have. This includes application software. See
the Free Software Directory for a catalogue
of free software application programs.
We also want to provide software for users who are not computer
experts. Therefore we developed a
graphical desktop (called GNOME) to help
beginners use the GNU system.
We also want to provide games and other recreations. Plenty of free games are
How far can free software go? There are no limits, except
when laws such as
the patent system prohibit free software. The ultimate goal is to
provide free software to do all of the jobs computer users want to
do—and thus make proprietary software a thing of the past.