Stallman Finds Himself at Moral Fork in the Road

In 1983 Richard Stallman found himself at a moral fork in the road and decided to take the less-traveled route. It is a journey which turned out to have significant economic implications. Otherwise, it would not have garnered much attention outside a small core of computer intelligentsia. Stallman had started the process that gave birth to the Linux/GNU OS.

Linux/GNU, an essentially free OS, has hastened the proliferation of Web servers, e-commerce applications, and all things e-business, a fact that Stallman says does not particularly interest him.

"It is not an important issue," Stallman says. "I know this aspect of Linux/GNU gets a lot of attention, but this just shows how people can so easily misunderstand things and miss what is truly significant."

The significant thing, according to Stallman, is the freedom to cooperate. And this is what he was thinking about 17 years ago. "I looked closely at the practices of software development and decided that non-free software is anti-social," Stallman says. "It divides people, and when you divide you can more easily conquer. The user who cannot get free software is essentially helpless."

He already had some experience with this utopian world of programming. "In the 1970s I was part of a free software community at MIT. But by 1980, that community was gone. I was still working in the AI [artificial intelligence] lab at MIT, and I wanted to build a new community dedicated to the principle of free software," Stallman explains.

In order to do it right, he reasoned, the first thing required was an OS. "The only way to build this new community and avoid moral corruption would be to have an OS that is free," Stallman says.

So Stallman announced the project to the world in November 1983 and then began to lay the groundwork for what is now commonly known as Linux.

By 1991 GNU was almost finished, except for one crucial piece. "We needed a kernel," Stallman says. "We had started to develop one, but it was extremely hard to debug."

The kernel is the part of the OS that starts and stops other programs and is responsible for allocating resources to them. "We absolutely needed a kernel," Stallman says.

Enter Linus Torvalds. "Linus wrote a kernel in 1991," Stallman says, "not as part of the GNU project, but he did use the GPL [GNU General Public License]."

The GPL was something Stallman devised to protect and promote his free software ideals, and by 1991, some developers had started to use it. This meant that people could freely use the GNU system along with the kernel developed by Linus, which eventually came to be called Linux. Stallman says a much better name for the now-famous OS would be GNU/Linux."

Clearing up confusion for the purpose of promoting free software is still the thing that gets Stallman out of bed in the morning. "The future right now is cloudy," he says. "The most important innovations in the GNU project were not technical, but rather social and political. People used to say that free software was absurd. We proved them wrong."

Richard Stallman

Age: 47

Current position: Chief GNU of the GNU project and president of the Free Software FoundationTechnology prediction: Claims not to think about new or future technology at all, but says one technical innovation he would like to see would be a way for people to make payments anonymously via the Internet

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