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Google is 15 years old but free software turned 30

Much of the success of the Android operating system is due to its ‘open source’ strategy that allows countless developers to make apps for it
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First Published: Sat, Sep 28 2013. 05 11 PM IST
But what many would not know that is that the GNU (pronounced g’noo) Project celebrated its 30th birthday on the same date. Photo: Bloomberg
But what many would not know that is that the GNU (pronounced g’noo) Project celebrated its 30th birthday on the same date. Photo: Bloomberg
Mumbai: Most Internet users would have most likely known it was Google’s 15th birthday on 27 September, unless you’re a Microsoft Corp’s Bing’s ardent fan who refuses to acknowledge this. Buzz about the new Hummingbird search algorithm and the doodles said it all. Cyberspace was littered with articles on the history of Google Inc., which is almost ubiquitous for its Gmail, Google earth, Google maps, Google glasses, YouTube and most importantly, its Android devices.
But what many would not know that is that the GNU (pronounced g’noo) Project celebrated its 30th birthday on the same date.
Much of the success of the Android operating system, which now has over 60% global marketshare, is due to its ‘open source’ strategy that allows countless developers to make apps for it. However, what gets lost in Android’s success story is the contribution of the GNU (pronounced g’noo) Project to the idea of free software and open source.
A Unix-like operating system, GNU/Linux is a software collection of applications, libraries, and developer tools, plus a program to allocate resources and talk to the hardware, known as a kernel. GNU has its own kernel, called the Hurd but it “is some way from being ready for daily use”, according to the GNU website.
Hence, GNU is typically used today with a kernel called Linux--the combination is the GNU/Linux operating system. “GNU/Linux is used by millions, though many call it “Linux” by mistake,” the website clarifies, underscoring Stallman’s insistence on not confusing Linux with GNU/Linux.
On 27 September, 1983, Richard Stallman, the brain behind the GNU project who was with the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Massachusetts Insititute of Technology (MIT) at that time, wrote: “Starting this Thanksgiving, I am going to write a complete Unix-compatible software system called GNU (for Gnu’s Not Unix), and give it away free to everyone who can use it...To begin with, GNU will be a kernel plus all the utilities needed to write and run C programs: editor, shell, C compiler, linker, assembler, and a few other things...GNU will be able to run Unix programs, but will not be identical to Unix...”
He added, “I consider that the golden rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it. I cannot in good conscience sign a non-disclosure agreement or a software license agreement. So that I can continue to use computers without violating my principles, I have decided to put together a sufficient body of free software so that I will be able to get along without any software that is not free.”
Names like Debian, Fedora, SUSE Linux, Ubuntu, Mandriva (formerly Mandrake), Gentoo and Slackware—all are GNU/Linux variants, and used as server, desktop (though Microsoft’s Windows remains the dominant operating system or OS for desktops) and mobile OS(es).
So is Android. But it’s important to clarify that “Android contains Linux, but not GNU; thus, Android and GNU/Linux are mostly different”, as Stallman himself clarified in an article for the Guardian on 19 September, 2011. He added that while Android “is a major step towards an ethical, user-controlled, free software portable phone, there is a long way to go”.
To be sure, there are some terms that need clarification in the context of free software.
Free software is software, according to the GNU website, that comes with permission for anyone to use, copy, and/or distribute, either verbatim or with modifications, either gratis or for a fee. If a program is free, then it can potentially be included in a free operating system such as GNU, or free versions of the GNU/Linux system.
“Free software is a matter of freedom, not price. But proprietary software companies typically use the term “free software” to refer to price. Sometimes they mean that you can obtain a binary copy at no charge; sometimes they mean that a copy is bundled with a computer that you are buying, and the price includes both. Either way, it has nothing to do with what we mean by free software in the GNU project,” the website states.
“Open source” software is used by some people to mean more or less the same category as free software, the website states, but clarifies that it is not exactly the same class of software: “they accept some licenses that we consider too restrictive, and there are free software licenses they have not accepted. However, the differences in extension of the category are small: nearly all free software is open source, and nearly all open source software is free.”
Public domain software is software that is not copyrighted and Copylefted software is free software whose distribution terms ensure that all copies of all versions carry more or less the same distribution terms. “In the GNU Project, we copyleft almost all the software we write, because our goal is to give every user the freedoms implied by the term ‘free software’,” the website states.
The debate between proprietary tools and free or open source tools is an old one. Both sides claim that their total cost of ownership (TCO-that includes development and maintenance over time) is lower that the other. Nevertheless, paying royalty for proprietary tools may not make sense to everyone, making many people opt for open source technologies.
The term ‘open source’ may be loosely used but it is not just limited to software alone.
The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is using the open source model to cure serious diseases. They have setup Open Source Drug Discovery to find solutions to Multi Drug Resistant (MDR) tuberculosis (TB) and malaria. The OSDD site today has over 6,000 registered members from 130 countries.
These members have created 60 molecules which can be developed into anti-TB drugs.
All existing free software would qualify as open source. Nearly all open source software is free software, but some open source licenses are too restrictive, so they do not qualify as free licenses, according to the GNU website. Besides, many products containing computers—including many Android devices—come with executable programs that correspond to free software source code, but the devices do not allow the user to install modified versions of those executables.
Even companies including Microsoft, International Business Machines (IBM) Corp and Oracle Corp, who till a decade back, were known to lock users with proprietary tools, have “opened” up considerably under pressure from free software proponents—especially, with the cloud (use of the Internet to deliver software services).
On 18 August, 2008, the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) rejected appeals from India, Brazil, South Africa and Venezuela, challenging its ratification of Microsoft’s Office Open XML (OOXML) file format as an international standard.
The decision followed a very intense global industry debate over open standards. On the one hand was Microsoft’s OOXML file format backed by Apple, Wipro Ltd., Infosys Ltd., Tata Consultancy Services Ltd., and India’s software lobby body Nasscom.
On the other was the Open Document Format (ODF), supported by the likes of IBM, Sun Microsystems (now acquired by Oracle), Red Hat, Google, the Department of Information Technology (DIT), National Informatics Centre (NIC), CDAC, IIT-Mumbai and IIM-Ahmedabad.
Represented by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), India had said no to OOXML on grounds that “multiple standards” are not good, while Microsoft argued that OOXML—a recognised standard by ECMA International already—is a response to evolving technology formats in line with continual evolving technology systems.
ISO approval meant government business for Microsoft since governments worldwide, including India, prefer standards that are ratified by bodies such as the ISO.
Governments are wary of holding digital data in proprietary formats, which could make them hostage to a software vendor.
This very same Microsoft today has a microsite dedicated to open source.
“Microsoft has changed as a company and is becoming more open in the way that we work with and collaborate with others in the industry, in how we listen to customers, and in our approach to the cloud. We contribute to and partner with open source communities and promote interoperability to make it easier and less costly for customers to develop and manage mixed IT environments. We actively participate in the standards setting process and support established and emerging standards in our products,” the Redmond company says on its website.
Much of this credit should go to ideas that emanate from work such as the GNU project. Happy 30 years of existence.
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First Published: Sat, Sep 28 2013. 05 11 PM IST