History of the GNU Project

 [What's GNU - small] (jpeg 8k) (jpeg 21k) *no gifs due to patent problems

The GNU project aims to make cooperation possible once again by removing the barriers to cooperation. (Richard Stallman's initial document on the GNU project is called the GNU Manifesto (28k characters).)

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. 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 proprietary, and the owners of the software forbid and obstruct 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 is a free operating system.

An operating system is not just a kernel; it also includes compilers, editors, text formatters, mail software, and many other things. Thus, writing a whole operating system is a very large job. It took many years.

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.

The initial goal of a free operating system, has been achieved. By the 1990s, we had either found or written all the major components except one--the kernel. Then the Linux kernel was developed. Combining the Linux kernel with the almost-complete GNU system resulted in a complete operating system: a Linux-based GNU system. Estimates are that hundreds of thousands of people now use Linux-based GNU systems, including Slackware, Debian, and others.

However, the GNU project is not limited to operating systems. We aim to provide a whole spectrum of software, whatever many users want to have. This includes application software. We already have a spreadsheet. We hope to extend GNU Emacs into a WYSIWYG desktop publishing system over the next couple of years.

We also want to provide software for users who are not computer experts. We are now working on a drag-and-drop icon desktop to help beginners use the GNU system.

We also want to provide games and other recreations. Some free games are already available.

How far can free software go? There are no limits, except when laws such as the patent system prohibit free software entirely. The ultimate goal is to provide free software to do all of the jobs computer users want to do--and thus make proprietary software obsolete.


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Updated: 20 Mar 1997 tower