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Stallman's GNU at 30: The hippie OS that foresaw the rise of Apple - and is now trying to take it on

Provided we all dump Android for Replicant, yeah?

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However, it’s been the world of mobile where GNU and Stallman himself came unstuck – the virtual street of walled-gardens of software that the GNU founder fought against from the very start.

The villain to the piece is Steve Jobs and his infernal iPhone. The iPhone powered from zero to 25 per cent market share in mere years. The device was a typically Jobsian experience: controlled form factor and hardware for predictable and error-free performance, typically.

Stallman railed against both the phone and its creator. The iPhone was not free; Apple has absolute control over what the masses can run on their iThings. The Emacs author branded Jobs, on his death, a "malign influence” on computing. The comments were a dark epitaph.

The free software world responded to Apple - but not exactly as Stallman wanted. Google came up with Android, a Linux-powered smartphone operating system that’s now on 75 per cent of the world’s handhelds thanks mostly to Samsung.

But Android sticks in the craw of software liberals like Stallman.

The code’s licensed not only under his freedom-luvvin’ GPL but also under the slightly different Apache Software Foundation (ASF) licence. The former mandates source code for changes to the software are released to the populace, but the latter does not.

This has put Stallman in a complicated spot: criticising but also endorsing Android. According to Stallman, Google's Linux OS is free – just not as free as it could be, thanks to the ASF licence. But, it’s freer than the iPhone because you can eventually run what you want, not what Cupertino dictates (unless you jailbreak, of course, an act that should be unnecessary, GNUites will say).

In an ideal world, Stallman wants us using Replicant, the 2010 fork of the Android source by a bunch of code hackers.

Only, Replicant isn’t exactly going anywhere: after three years it’s working on 10 handsets, which is progress, but it’s an impoverished effort. Stallman’s FSF launched this summer a public fundraiser to get Replicant working on more phones. Donations will let the project buy new devices to test and build on.

It’s difficult to see how Replicant will become anything more than yet another well-intentioned, community-driven open phone project that failed to take off.

Standing more of a chance in the open phone stakes is Firefox OS, using a Linux kernel, or Ubuntu for smartphones. That’s because they have the backing of organisations behind them and have more than a foot in the door of the murky world of carriers and handset makers who have distribution channels and influence.

But Firefox’s Linux kernel, called Gonk, is licensed under an Apache and the Mozilla Public Licence (MPL); Ubuntu, while under GPL, has been politicised by its maker Canonical’s decision to follow its own path at the risk of community peace, putting in increasingly commercial features and a roadmap that’s alienated sections of the open-source faithful and those concerned about their web privacy.

The world of GNU 30 ago was simple affair: Stallman took a stand against the huge Unix makers' crass stupidity and backwards-looking thinking.

But now success for GNU systems and free-software thinkers comes with compromises. Until the kings of mobile suffer a Unix-style stunning reversal of fortune, it’s hard to see how, or when, Stallman’s brand of liberalism will be able to escape from fringes - the success of Apple and Google has consigned it to. ®

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