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Stephen Fry Explains GNU and Free Software

Posted in Free/Libre Software, GNU/Linux at 8:54 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Note: This was recorded when GNU was turning 25. RMS is turning 70 later then year and then the GNU Manifesto turns 40.

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License


Computers. I‘ve loved them since I’ve been able to afford to have my own, back in the beginning of the modern home computer era, the 1980s. And I‘ve owned a large number of different kinds of computer and I‘ve expressed, publicly, loyalty to this kind or that kind. But recently my mind has turned, as many people‘s have, to this whole business of Free Software. There is a lot of confusion about what this means and I‘d like to help clear it up because this happens to be a year of celebration, and I want to help us all celebrate it and to look forward to the future of Free Software.

If you have – I don‘t know – plumbing in your house, it may be that you don‘t understand it, but you may have a friend who does and they may suggest you move a pipe here, a stopcock there, or a valve somewhere else. And you‘re not breaking the law by doing that, are you? Because it‘s your house and you own the plumbing. You can‘t do that with your computer. You can‘t actually fiddle with your operating system, and you certainly can‘t share any ideas you have about your operating system with other people because Apple and Microsoft, who run the two most popular operating systems, are very firm about that fact that they own that and no one else can have anything to do with it.

Now this may seem natural to you: “Why shouldn’t they?” But actually, why can‘t you do with it what you like? And why can‘t the community, at large, alter, and improve, and share? That’s how science works, after all… all knowledge is free, and all knowledge is shared in good science. If it isn’t — it’s bad science and it’s a kind of tyranny.

And this is, really, where it all started. A man called Richard Stallman, who decided 25 years ago, almost to this very day, to write a whole new operating system from the ground up. He called it GNU, which stands for “GNU is Not Unix” because it isn’t. It is similar to Unix, in many ways, but every element of it, every module, every little section of the code (and it‘s a gigantic code because it’s to run on many many platforms) is run by the community, is run by coders “out there” who are welcomed in to the GNU community, to help improve the software. Every “distro”, as they are called, every distribution of GNU, is tested, and worked upon, and refined by people whose only interest is in creating the perfect operating system that can be used across the spectrum of platforms and by as many users as possible.

Now, there came a time when the kernel, which is the central part of an operating system, needed to be written. And a man called Linus Torvalds, of whom you may have heard, wrote the kernel and it was named after his name, Linux (line-ucks) or Linux (Lin-ucks) as some people pronounce it. And Linux is the kernel that runs within GNU and I‘m here simply to remind you that GNU and Linux are the twin pillars of the Free Software community: people who believe, and this is the important part, that software should be Free, that the using community should be allowed to adapt it, and adopt it, to change it, to improve it, and to spread those improvements around the community, like science. That‘s basically what it is saying. In the same way that good scientists share everything and all knowledge is open and free, so it should be with an operating system.

So, if you‘re a supporter of GNU, if you‘re a supporter of Linux, and the Free Software Foundation, “Well, what can I do?”, you are probably wondering. The most obvious thing you can do is use a GNU/Linux operating system on your own computer. It‘s a lot easier than you might think. Go to gnu.org and see if you can find a distribution that suits you. Probably, if you like a good graphical user-interface, something like g-New-Sense, gNewSense. You’ll see it there on gnu.org. Or, if you’re a really smart cookie, you might want to do your own coding. You might want to contribute to the sum of knowledge that makes GNU and Linux what they are.

Either way, I hope you will join me in wishing GNU a very happy twenty-fifth birthday. Lets do that now actually…

So, “Happy birthday, GNU!” Twenty-five years old. The operating system of the future. Freedom!

Chocolaty good. The tastiest operating system in the world… and it‘s all free.

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