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?
Analysis GNU fans have celebrated their software movement's thirtieth birthday - a movement that started as rebellious bits and bytes of tools, and is now a worldwide phenomenon.
Today, servers, PCs, mobile phones, tablets, and all manner of devices run operating systems and applications that owe their genesis to the idea of software freedom articulated by GNU founder Richard Stallman.
In September 1983 he announced he was creating GNU: Gnu is Not Unix. And, for his second trick, the Emacs programmer founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and wrote the GNU General Public Licence (GPL) - the lifeblood of the whole project.
Stallman is a liberal who has distanced himself from the label libertarian - a label that, perhaps for most Brits, conjures a right-leaning American stereotype who owns lots of guns, lives in Nebraska and inhabits the Tea Party fringes of the Republican Party. Basically, someone who likes to look others square in the eye and say: "You aren’t the boss of me."
But Stallman has expressed his liberal views though code, and defined four freedoms that boil down to the simple belief software should be free - and that's free as in freedom, not free as in free beer.
He felt that if his code wasn’t free - if it could not always be freely altered, improved and shared under the same conditions - then neither was he free because it would mean he lost his rights to do what he liked with his software and the computer running it. If the software wasn't free, in Stallman's eyes, that meant somebody else was being the boss of him, telling him what he could and couldn't do with his machine and his life built around it.
The bearded firebrand's rallying cry was "free Unix!" and he created GNU during what was a pivotal time for the technology industry: Unix - a capable multiuser, multitasking operating system - was really picking up steam and the Unix vendors had to play a canny game. They implemented ever-more proprietary features to differentiate themselves. This was the Unix Wars.
And while they duked it out, Stallman was busy writing a set of compatible software of which the source code was completely available and licensed so that it will always remain so: in other words, the GNU operating system stack, complete with a C compiler and other build tools, text editors, the familiar Unix utilities, plus games, spreadsheets, and so on.
Three decades on, what started as a toolkit of software components, became a movement that moved from the fringes to take on the IT mainstream.
By 1991, the GNU team had written enough useful stuff to encourage volunteer developers to port the GNU sources to Linux, Linus Torvalds' fledgling Unix-flavoured PC operating system kernel, also licensed under the GPL.
Today, the Linux kernel is used in PCs, cars, TVs and phones; it’s packaged up and customised by Red Hat, Ubuntu and others; it runs supercomputers, ADSL modems and Google and Facebook servers; and aids most of the world’s boffinry breakthroughs at universities and laboratories. A large part of that work relies on code licensed under the GNU GPL.
The principle of always keeping the code available to all also produced the open-source movement – a corporate-friendly flavour of free software devised to market Stallman's radical vision to suits.
Whereas Stallman took a hardline on enforcing the absolute freedom to distribute source code, other licences took a softer approach, which made it possible for anyone to take some source, bundle it into a program and not necessarily have to share the work. Under Stallman's aggressive licence, anything that incorporates and relies upon GPL-licensed code must also be distributed freely under that same source-code licence.
Now we have open-source productivity suites, databases, BI tools – all things that were once closed and proprietary and very, very expensive to buy and maintain.
Success for free and open source software was slow at first, but snowballed due to the nature of the opposition: rival commercial programs were controlled by a select few and the products they produced pricey.
Where did it go wrong? Well, let's ask Steve Jobs
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. ®