GNU’s Not UNIX!

As of today, I am the official Director of Access Technology for Project GNU (www.gnu.org). I will continue my work with RTFI and NPII (www.raisingthefloor.net and www.npii.org) but as the representative from GNU which probably means that my activities there are not going to change much.

As GNU and most of the free e software world has (with obvious exceptions at Sun, Mozilla and IBM) been without any real leadership based in one of the prominent organizations, my role will, at first be collecting a lot of information, finishing the GNU Accessibility Statement (GAS) (possibly the strongest statement of commitment to accessibility), talking about accessibility and free software and how one cannot say they promote freedom while disenfranchising one or more minority groups and working with other leaders in the field to find and set priorities. My first public appearance in this role will be at the Libre Planet conference in the Harvard Science Center on Saturday March 20 at 3:00 pm local time.

I am very proud to be joining Project GNU and grateful to my old friend Richard Stallman, whom I’ve known for nearly 25 years, for facilitating my appointment to GNU’s august set of leaders. Richard Stallman, commonly called rms, and I co-founded the League for Programming Freedom (www.lpf.org) many years ago and are credited with being the force behind Borland’s victory in when Lotus sued it claiming user interface copyright. Today, at least in the US, UI one cannot copyright a UI.

I want to take a little time to honor rms and his place in history:

Anyone who has paid any attention to free (as in liberty) software, has probably heard one or more versions of the Richard Stallman birthday party, immediately after which the free software movement began. My favorite one says that rms, walking back from a Central Square Chinese restaurant where he and friends celebrated his birthday, got back to the MIT Laboratory for Artificial Intelligence and was told by Richard Greenblatt (then Director of the Lab) that Symbolics, an early AI company that’s been defunct for a lot of years now, had stopped sharing its source code with MIT but used a lot of the code developed on the ninth floor in the legendary building on Main Street in Cambridge.

Angered by this news, rms went to the roof of the building, found the Symbolics microwave antenna, tore it off of its supports and threw it into the parking lot. Stallman then went on to, as a lone hacker, duplicate everything Symbolics did and gave it away for free.

Thus, the free software movement started. After some time, rms decided to do an entirely free version of UNIX and formed the Free Software Foundation (www.fsf.org) as its home. Linus came along a number of years later and contributed a kernel to the body of free software and, sadly, today gets almost all of the credit for the free/open source movement. Today, at last count, a GNU/Linux distro contains about 1.5% code from the kernel Linux and about 15% from Project GNU with the rest coming from the community of contributors worldwide. So, we call the distros GNU/Linux to give credit where it is due.

Virtually all free software programmers know a number of the tools developed by GNU, including: bash, gcc, emacs, flex and far too many others to list them all in this blog entry.

GNU/Linux distros also include many famous works of free software, including: APache, Firefox, Drupal, and lots of other programs that have a free software license, GPL, Apache, MIT, BSD, etc. GPL sticks the most closely to the original goals rms had when he started the movement, it’s controversial but it does provide the most freedom (without the Scientific) of all of the licenses.

As another bit of history, let’s look back at 1995. The Interweb had few tubes and most users connected by dial up. Publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to Mother Jones all said that the web would be important but nobody could figure out how to monetize a web site. Its success was not certain and early adopters were taking what then seemed like huge risks.

Meanwhile, big companies still sold WAN systems that sort of worked like the web. IBM had Domino, Microsoft had Exchange, Lotus had Notes, Novell had Groupwise, Oracle had something and there were a few other players in this space. Ask any IT professional who was around back then if they could get any of these systems to communicate with each other and, at best, you will get a laugh. This could have been the future of the Internet – big companies with proprietary interfaces that could hardly communicate with each other.

Then, it was free software to the rescue. Servers like Apache started to grab the largest share of the servers and, as anyone could view and modify the source, compatibility came swiftly. Free software gave us a robust Internet where the most problematic features, Flash for instance, cause the most trouble while free programs chug along nicely.

If rms hadn’t started the concept of free software that always included source, would the Internet have been so successful. What percentage of servers run some GNU/Linux distro? Could this be the reason for near universal compatibility?

Surely, rms was not solely responsible for the Internet but the openness, the freedom component of the net’s philosophy certainly started on the ninth floor where he still maintains an office.

So, can we build a universally compatible, free set of accessibility tools? We’ll certainly try.

Afterward

There are lots of amusing rms stories from years past. My favorite takes place at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) freshman dance about 15 years ago. Gerry Susman (author of one of the most successful computer science text books in history) was approached by a young woman who he was advising.

Sussman asked, “Are you having a good time?”

Student replied, “Yeah, I’ve been dancing with this guy all night and he’s really nice and very funny. Only oddity is that he thinks he’s Richard Stallman.”

Sussman replies, “That is Richard Stallman.”

The student nearly passed out as rms had been a hero of hers for years, she had been dancing with him all night and, until gjs told her, she had no idea.

— End

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chris.admin

I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort. You can follow this blog in your favorite RSS reader, and you can also view my Twitter profile (@gonz_blinko) and follow me there.

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