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Open Source, GNU, Linux Kernel and the Free Software Foundation

Mark EdworthyJan 3, 2018, 8:14:15 PM

Open source is a term that is becoming more recognised within various technology communities and by the general public. Those of who that have already read my previous article which describes the differences between free and open source products, will know that there are many open source projects, services and software available.

In this article, I am going to attempt to explain about the creation of the open source movement, as well as briefly explore the history of Linux.

Richard Stallman (born in New York – US, 1953) is a computer software programmer and free software advocate. In 1974, Richard earned a bachelor’s degree in physics form Harvard University. As a freshman at Harvard in 1971, he had begun working at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he created the Emacs text editor with James Gosling (who later developed Java), as well as developing the Artificial Intelligence technique of dependency-directed backtracking.

Richard Stallman resigned from MIT employment in 1984, after expressing concerns about changes to the university’s software copyright rules. In the previous year, he used his personal time creating the GNU operating system, which was intended to be a free version of AT&T’s UNIX operating system. The name GNU was created as a recursive acronym, which stood for “GNU’s not UNIX”.

In 1985, Richard started the non-profit Free Software Foundation, in which he is the president of and a full-time volunteer. He has developed a number of widely used software components and software for the GNU system (these include the GNU compiler collection, the GNU symbolic debugger, GNU Emacs and various other components). Richard Stallman could be considered as a “hacker” (within the true meaning of this term), ie. a computer programmer / advocate, who strongly believes in freely modifying and sharing computer code (as demonstrated by the points that are provided within my previous article).

Richard Stallman was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (a five year grant awarded to individuals that show exceptional creativity in their work) in 1990. This “genius award” provides the recipients a substantial financial stipend with no strings attached, this award helped to provide Richard with some free time, so that he could write and release various utilities and documents for the GNU project (including the GNU Emacs user manual, which has gone through numerous revisions and is freely available for the GNU website).

With the release of a free operating system, Richard and the Free Software Foundation focused on promoting free software and the development of the GNU General Public License (GNU / GPL), which is commonly known as a copyleft agreement (copyleft agreements usually grants general permission to copy and reproduce intellectual property. This form of agreement is a specific license that is granted under copyright legislation, which is recognised by most countries. Typically, copyleft is a general license agreement that is granted by the intellectual property owner, that permits anyone to freely use their property under specific terms, as described within my previous article).

In 1989, Richard Stallman also co-founded League for Programming Freedom and since then, Richard has spent most of his time advocating for free software. In which he as campaigned against digital restrictions management (DRM), software patents, as well as other legal and technical systems which could be considered as taking rights and freedoms away from users (examples include the usage of restrictive end user license agreements, non disclosure agreements, activation codes, proprietary formats, providing binary executables without the corresponding source code and other restrictive practices).

True to his hacker roots, Richard continues to promote free software around the world, though he has had limited success in convincing governments and various other organisations to shift completely to free software. Richard was one of the principal people that was interviewed and profiled within the documentary: Revolution OS by American director JTS Moore.

The GNU project, documents and tools allowed Linus Torvalds (born in Helsinki – Finland, 1969) to began writing his own kernel as a personal project whilst he was a student at the University of Helsinki in Finland. Whilst there, Linus had been using a non-free Unix-like system.

Linus created device drivers and hard-drive access, and by September 1991, he had a basic design that he called Version 0.01. Four months later and the first version of the kernel (which was given the name: Linux), which was then combined with the GNU system to produce a complete free operating system.

Throughout the 1990s, Linux continued to be improved. This improvement led the way to the production of large scale applications and services (including: web hosting, networking and database services). Version 2.2 was a major update to the Linux kernel. This version was released in January 1999 and by early 2000, most computer companies supported Linux in one way or another. Since then, many organisations, companies and governmental agencies have recognised that Linux provided a common standard.

Linus Torvalds was awarded with the 2012 Millennium Technically Prize by the Technology Academy Finland “in recognition of his creation for computers leading to the widely used Linux kernel”. Linus was also the recipient of the 2014 IEEE Computer Society Computer Pioneer Award.

Over the last two decades, many companies, organisations and independent developers have used the Linux kernel and the GNU system to produce their own operating system distributions. Due to the nature of the GNU General Public License agreement, many of these distributions where then used as a base to produce new, forked version.

Some of the most popular companies and organisations that develop their own distributions include: Red Hat (used by many government agencies and large organisations), Slackware, Debian, Enoch (which was forked and subsequently used as the operating system for Google Chromebooks) and Arch Linux. Other developers used these version and modify them for their own distributions.

Whilst many of these forked versions are produced by small, independent development teams, there are a few larger companies that have developed their own forked distributions. Most notable examples include Canonical (developers of Ubuntu), Univention GmbH (Univention Corporate Server) and SuSE (which is a fork of Slackware), both Ubuntu and Univention Corporate Server are based on the Debian distribution.

With the advent of IoT (Internet of Things) products, Android devices, cloud storage and other technologies, the Linux kernel is used by many devices and is commonly found in tablets, phones, multimedia players, televisions, GPS navigation tools, routers and networking equipment.

Due to the wide spread usage of the Linux kernel and GNU General Public License, many common services and devices are now using open source software. Both Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds has helped to shape a movement that has inspired many people to endorse, develop and use software that can be feely shared, viewed and modified by other users.

“The idea of free software is that users of computing deserve freedom. They deserve in particular to have control over their computing. And proprietary software does not allow users to have control of their computing.”
– Richard Stallman

References & Other Resources:
* Article: What is Free and Open Source Software
* YouTube: Revolution OS - Documentary Directed by JTS Moore (2001)
* Wikipedia: History of Free and Open Source Software
* Wikipedia: Linus Torvalds
* Wikipedia: Richard Stallman
* Free Software Foundation
* GNU Project
* Technology and Open Source Blog