15 Years of Free Software
by Richard M. Stallman
It is now just over 15 years since the beginning of the Free
Software Movement and the GNU Project. We have come a long way.
In 1984, it was impossible to use a modern computer without
installing a proprietary operating system, which you would have to
obtain under a restrictive license. No one was allowed to share
software freely with fellow computer users, and hardly anyone could
change software to fit his or her own needs. The owners of software
had erected walls to divide us from each other.
The GNU Project was founded to change all that. Its first goal: to
develop a Unix-compatible portable operating system that would be
100% free software. Not 95% free, not 99.5%, but 100%—so that
users would be free to redistribute the whole system, and free to
change and contribute to any part of it. The name of the system,
GNU, is a recursive acronym meaning “GNU's Not
Unix”—a way of paying tribute to the technical ideas of
Unix, while at the same
time saying that GNU is something different. Technically, GNU is
like Unix. But unlike Unix, GNU gives its users freedom.
It took many years of work, by hundreds of programmers, to develop
this operating system. Some were paid by the Free Software
Foundation and by free software companies; most were volunteers. A
few have become famous; most are known mainly within their
profession, by other hackers who use or work on their code. All
together have helped to liberate the potential of the computer
network for all humanity.
In 1991, the last major essential component of a Unix-like system
was developed: Linux, the free kernel written by Linus
Torvalds. Today, the combination of GNU and Linux is used by
millions of people around the world, and its popularity is
growing. This month, we announced release 1.0 of
the GNU graphical desktop, which we hope will make the GNU/Linux
system as easy to use as any other operating system.
But our freedom is not permanently assured. The world does not stand
still, and we cannot count on having freedom five years from now,
just because we have it today. Free software faces difficult
challenges and dangers. It will take determined efforts to preserve
our freedom, just as it took to obtain freedom in the first
place. Meanwhile, the operating system is just the
beginning—now we need to add free applications to handle the
whole range of jobs that users want to do.
In future columns, I will be writing about the specific challenges
facing the free software community, and other issues affecting
freedom for computer users, as well as developments affecting the
GNU/Linux operating system.