Understanding GNU: The Backbone of Free Software Philosophy

What is GNU? Get a comprehensive overview of the GNU project and its pivotal role in championing the cause of free and open-source software.

You have undoubtedly come across the GNU acronym many times if you are involved in free software and related to its operating systems, such as the different flavors of Unix and Linux.

So, if you’re scratching your head wondering what GNU is, don’t worry; you’re not alone and in for an enlightening experience!

In this exploration, we’ll unravel how GNU sparked a revolution, demystifying free software principles, and see how this philosophy is more relevant today than ever.

But to get started, we must first take a little walk back to the 1970s and the reasons that led to GNU.

So, let’s embark on this exciting journey together and reveal what lies behind the GNU acronym and the Free Software Philosophy on which it is based.

Once Upon a Time: The Birth of GNU

Our story begins in the 1971s, when the then 18-year-old Richard Stallman, talented mathematician and first-year physics student at Harvard University, started his career at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, working in a group using exclusively free software.

Yes, you read that right – free software. At that time, in the 1970s, it was pretty common for software to be distributed freely. However, in the early 1980s, this changed radically.

Companies started to patent their software en masse, with the share of free software shrinking significantly. This largely disrupts the established practice of programmers freely collaborating, sharing code, and working on it.

Young Richard Stallman
Young Richard Stallman

Frustrated by the encroaching wave of proprietary software and restrictive licenses, Stallman envisioned a world where software was freely accessible, modifiable, and distributable by all.

All of this impacts his decision to establish an organization committed to promoting and defending the principles of free software. The result – in 1983, Stallman announced the GNU Project, an ambitious endeavor to create a completely free operating system. His vision revolved around four fundamental freedoms that he believed all software users should possess:

  1. The freedom to run the program for any purpose.
  2. The freedom to study how the program works and modify it.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies of the software.
  4. The freedom to improve the software and share those improvements with the community.

What is GNU?

Stallman chose “GNU” as a recursive acronym for “GNU’s Not Unix,” highlighting its inspiration and divergence from the Unix operating system. In other words, it is a playful way of saying that while the Unix operating system inspires GNU, it is different, and, more importantly, it is free!

Are you already asking yourself, “Wait for a minute? How come free? Isn’t Unix a free OS?” We immediately clarify that this is not to be confused with BSD operating systems, which became very popular at the turn of the century, overtaken later by Linux, and widely used these days as a synonym for Unix, which is not correct.

Unix is a proprietary operating system, which means it is a closed source. There are many flavors of Unix, as BSD is a “Unix-like” OS and is open-source. Unix was developed at AT&T’s Bell Labs and, at the time of GNU’s emergence in the 1980s, is the leading closed-source operating system.

Now, back to the topic. To propagate the principles of free software and support the GNU Project, Stallman established the Free Software Foundation (FSF) in 1985.

The same year, he published the now legendary GNU Manifesto, outlining the motivation, objectives, and philosophy behind the GNU Project, serving as a call to action, encouraging programmers to join the project and users to support the initiative.

As a slight digression, we should specify that while the terms “free software” and “open source” are sometimes used interchangeably, there are nuanced philosophical differences. The former emphasizes user freedoms, while the latter focuses on the collaborative and transparent development methodology.

Okay, by now, you’ve made it clear from an ideological point of view what’s behind the GNU project. But how does this relate to the software side of things? Here’s the answer.

GNU is not an operating system in the sense we put it. It is an umbrella for a wide range of core software tools, including programs and utilities, for example, the GNU Core Utilities, that enable the construction of an operating system, and their use in such makes that operating system GNU.

Moreover, GNU’s tools, such as the GCC (GNU Compiler Collection) and Bash shell, have been fundamental in software development. For reference, GCC remains one of the primary compilers for languages like C and C++.

So, the GNU Project worked hard to develop many software building blocks, including programs, tools, and utilities. However, one critical piece was missing – the kernel, the software’s heart. And this is where Linux comes in.

GNU + Linux: A Perfect Match

You’ve heard the story’s first half countless times, which is not new to you. The year is 1991, and a 21-year-old Finnish computing science student at Helsinki University, Linus Torvalds, is programming an operating system kernel. The more intriguing thing comes next.

Young Linus Torvalds
Young Linus Torvalds

Torvalds has a kernel that is just a piece of software by itself. Yes, exactly. The kernel has little practical value without the surrounding tools and utilities to interact with it, forming a complete operating system.

At the same time, the GNU Project has developed all these tools but not its kernel to interact with. And the obvious happens.

Torvalds builds his kernel into a complete operating system by adding tools developed by the GNU Project. On August 25, 1991, he released the now-legendary announcement that he had completed his “hobby project,” which would change the software industry forever. The rest is history.

This leads us to a significant question that has generated debate for over 30 years, some jokingly, others not.

Linux or GNU/Linux? Which One Is Correct?

To summarize the facts so far. Once upon a time, two ambitious projects saw the light of day.

First was GNU, kickstarted by Richard Stallman in 1983 with a vision of creating an entirely free operating system. GNU developed many handy tools and utilities but was missing a vital piece – the kernel, the heart of the operating system.

Then, in 1991, a young coder named Linus Torvalds introduced a Linux kernel. It was like finding the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle! A complete, free operating system was born when paired with the GNU components.

Here’s where the eternal argument with names kicks in! Many started calling the entire operating system “Linux,” giving a shoutout to the kernel. However, others felt that the name should be “GNU/Linux” to honor the substantial contributions of the GNU Project and highlight the philosophy of software freedom.

Obviously, “GNU/Linux” paints a fuller picture of the operating system’s origin and values. At the same time, “Linux” has become more prevalent in casual conversation, being used as a collective term by newcomers to the world of free software, experienced professionals, and government institutions.

So, yes, “GNU/Linux” is the correct name. But calling it just “Linux” in no way diminishes the importance and involvement of the GNU Project. Even though, purely technically, Linux refers only to the kernel, it is the name used worldwide as a collective for a GNU/Linux operating system.

GNU’s Impact on Today’s Software World

GNU’s philosophy of free software access has been pivotal in democratizing software usage and spurring innovation. It has left an indelible mark on the software world, pioneering the Free Software Movement and laying the groundwork for countless open-source initiatives.

The combined efforts of GNU and Linux developers created a robust, scalable, and free operating system that has since become a viable alternative to proprietary operating systems, running on millions of servers, desktops, and embedded systems worldwide.

The impact of the GNU Project also extends well into the enterprise world. Tech giants like IBM, Google, Facebook, and many others leverage open-source software, recognizing the value in community-driven development.

At the same time, Linux has become the backbone of the internet, powering most web servers, and it is the de facto standard for cloud computing, virtualization, and containerization technologies, underpinning the modern global information infrastructure.

Lastly, educational institutions and research organizations worldwide harness the power of GNU tools and the Linux operating system for learning, teaching, and developing new technologies.

So, what is the impact of GNU on the modern software world? In a word, enormous.

In conclusion, the GNU Project, started 40 years ago by Richard Stallman, is one of the most significant things to happen in the history of software and computing, shaping what largely drives the world’s information infrastructure today.

Bottom Line

The GNU Project, initiated by Richard Stallman in 1983, was founded on the philosophy of freedom, specifically regarding software. This project is more than just a set of programs, libraries, and development tools; it represents a movement, a vision of a world where software is free in terms of cost and rights.

Imagine buying a cake but being told you can’t share, modify, or even understand how it is made! That’s how proprietary software works. That’s where GNU and the Free Software Movement come in!

They flip this around, allowing us to understand, improve, and share the software with the world, fostering innovation, community collaboration, and user control.

It is like a community garden in the middle of a city, where everyone is invited to plant, nurture, and share the fruits of software development. And that’s fantastic because GNU is the spark that lit the fire of the last remaining “tech romance” these days.

The story of GNU and the Free Software Movement is a testament to the transformative power of ideals and community. The birth of GNU was not just the inception of a project; it was the dawn of a movement that continues to illuminate the path toward a freer and more inclusive digital world.

As the digital age continues to evolve, GNU’s principles will remain crucial in navigating the complex interplay between technology, rights, and freedoms.

Bobby Borisov

Bobby Borisov

Bobby, an editor-in-chief at Linuxiac, is a Linux professional with over 20 years of experience. With a strong focus on Linux and open-source software, he has worked as a Senior Linux System Administrator, Software Developer, and DevOps Engineer for small and large multinational companies.

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