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An Overview of the GNU Project
Contributors: Free Software Foundation; Forward: AbleStable®

The GNU Project aims to provide free software for all. This article outlines the background and principles of The Free Software Foundation (FSF) who are responsible for the GNU Project. The FSF's Documentation License is also available at AbleStable® for reference.

The GNU Project
The GNU Project has developed a complete free software system named ''GNU'' (GNU's Not Unix) that is upwardly compatible with UNIX Richard Stallman's initial document on the GNU Project is called the GNU Manifesto, which has been translated into several other languages. The Initial Announcement of the GNU Project was written in 1983 and is available at

The word ''free'' above pertains to freedom, not price. You may or may not pay a price to get GNU software. Either way, once you have the software you have three specific freedoms in using it.

the freedom to copy the program and give it away to your friends and co-workers

the freedom to change the program as you wish, by having full access to source code

the freedom to distribute an improved version and thus help build the community

(If you redistribute GNU software, you may charge a fee for the physical act of transferring a copy, or you may give away copies.)

The GNU Project was conceived in 1983 as a way of bringing back the co-operative spirit that prevailed in the computing community in earlier days, and to make co-operation possible once again by removing the obstacles to co-operation imposed by the owners of proprietary software.

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 co-operate with each other, and often did.

By the 1980s, almost all software was proprietary, which means that it had owners who forbid and prevent co-operation 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.

Those at The Free Software Foundation 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 UNIX-like operating system has been achieved. By the 1990s, we had either found or written all the major components except one: the kernel. Then Linux, a free kernel, was developed by Linus Torvalds. Combining Linux 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, Red Hat, and others.

However, the GNU Project is not limited to operating systems. The Free Software Foundation aims to provide a whole spectrum of software, whatever many users want to have. This includes application software. The FSF has a spreadsheet, and they hope to extend GNU Emacs into a WYSIWYG desktop publishing system over the coming years.

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

The FSF also wants to provide games and other recreations, and some free games are already available under the GNU Project.

The ultimate goal of the FSF is to provide free software to do all of the jobs computer users want to do, and thus make proprietary software obsolete.

Authors background

Free Software Foundation (FSF) & GNU inquiries and questions: email

Copyright (C) 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001 Free Software Foundation, Inc., 59 Temple Place - Suite 330, Boston, MA 02111, USA

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