Recently as I was developing the award-winning Hackerbooks application which makes it possible to download free books (and not free as pirated!) about Computer Science and Hacking in general, I started reading on my Pandora “Free as in Freedom” from Sam Williams, focusing on the life of Richard Stallman (RMS), the father of the GNU initiative. While I had heard about RMS many times before, reading about his life and motivations in more details provided a number of insights. Let me share some with you.
First, I encourage you to read the book. Since it’s free and since it’s an easy and quick read (chapters are not too long and it’s written in a very casual way), you would probably benefit from the reading just to better know where Free Software, GNU and Linux came from in the first place.
I think many people recall that Richard Stallman went into activism for Free Software over an issue with the Xerox printer he was using at the AI lab. Actually, this is a little more subtle than that.
They were using an old printer at the time in the MIT AI lab, and paper jamming would frequently happen. Since the source code of the printer program was directly available at the time, Stallman could not fix the paper jam issue but could at least ensure the printer checked its own status by itself and that reported it every 10 minutes if it is working properly or not. If it was not operating as expected, it would send a notification to the networked users to let them know about the printer jam. And usually someone would notice and take care of it.
That saved a lot of time in the end, as you did not have to go back and forth to the printer ever 10 minutes to check if the printer was still working properly.
Later on, a new laser printer arrived, provided for free by Xerox, capable of churning a lot more work per minute. This was very beneficial for the team, however when RMS tried to check the source code to recreate the notification system on the new printer, he could not find it in the documentation. Only binary blobs were available, preventing any modification. However, he knew that the Harvard lab should have access to the source code since it was a requirement for every program running on the machines they were using there. He used his Harvard connection to get the source file from there and implemented the necessary modification on the AI Lab printer. At this stage he may have just been mildly annoyed but it did not go further.
One the real sparks occurred when he met one of the hackers involved with the drivers and casually asked him for the source. That person refused, explaining that he was under a NDA with Xerox.
A Non Disclosure Agreement.
This went against all hacker principles of sharing code and reapplying it in the community. From this point onwards Stallman became more and more of an activist of what the hacker ethics should stand for, which led him to create a major legal piece a few years later, the GNU license.
The GNU license was revolutionary: it was a perfectly legal way to license software and its sources and define what one could or not do with it. The GNU license was a major milestone towards creating a full free (as in freedom) operating system.
I will not go into more details here, but the book does a good job to describe the logic that led Stallman from being a respected hacker to becoming a full-fledged activist with a purpose. It made me realize two things:
- First, that RMS was a hell of a hacker back in the days when he started coding in the MIT AI Lab. He not only wrote Emacs, one of the most famous text editors that one can extend by adding packages to it – almost like a mini-OS in itself – but he also recreated closed source software by reproducing their operating logic through other means to make it into Free Software alternatives. He was working so fast that he could catch up just by himself against a team of dozens of coders distributing closed source applications. And let’s not forget he designed the GNU compiler, GCC, a major piece to compile and distribute software for different architectures.
- The second thing is that I can now clearly see where he is coming from. You may just see him like a grumpy old man but once you realize what he went through, it makes it obvious why he cares so much about saying GNU / Linux and not just Linux to describe a distribution, because GNU is what started it all, and what led the whole philosophy of Free Software which is not just reduced to “Open Source”. Linus Torvalds was certainly convinced enough at the time to make Linux exist under a GPL, but he was never such an advocate of having a whole free software OS. And to this day, the only person who has been consistent in their beliefs and actions has been Stallman, all the way.
So, this is basically why you should be reading this book, if you care a little bit about knowing where this fantastic, multiplatform OS is coming from. I am not advocating you become Free Software activists yourselves, but knowing what it is and what made it happen is eye-opening.
After all, Free Software is what made the Pandora possible, and what enables many of us to port and use software for it.