In 1983, the GNU Project was started by Richard Stallman in order to re-evoke the once prevalent cooperative spirit among computers users. It was Stallman's goal to make cooperation possible once again by removing restrictions set up by proprietary software vendors.

In 1971, when Stallman first started his career at MIT, he worked in a group that used open source software (for a definition of "free software" go here). The atmosphere surrounding software distribution at that time was much different than that of today: computer companies often distributed free software; programmers were free to do the same, and, indeed, often did. But by the 1980s, almost all software was proprietary.

With his motivation already in place, Stallman and his contemporaries set to work designing a completely useable system based on the UNIX platform. By the 1990s, after several years of development, the group had written an almost-complete operating system, with compilers, text editors, text formatters and other software. Combining their software with Linux, the free kernel developed by Linus Torvalds, they had an entirely functional and open source operating system. Estimates are that ten million people now use Linux-based GNU systems, including companies such as Slackware, Debian and Red Hat.


Current Challenges and Initiatives In the GNU Open Source Community

Since its inception, GNU has believed that the best way to advance the open-source movement is by example. GNU provides high quality, desirable, open-source software that rivals name brand, proprietary packages including word-processors, spreadsheets, graphics and sound editors, and even games and educational programs. In addition to providing "free" software, GNU provides various services such as software developer resources, documentation, and books about GNU. Under GNU's original vision, their free packages and services would be released together along with the GNU/Linux operating system to form an open-source and complete computing environment.

That is not to say, however that the project did not meet with opposition and challenges. Richard Stallman writes:

"We have proved our ability to develop a broad spectrum of free software. This does not mean we are invincible and unstoppable. Several challenges make the future of free software uncertain; meeting them will require steadfast effort and endurance, sometimes lasting for years. It will require the kind of determination that people display when they value their freedom and will not let anyone take it away."

There are three main challenges that GNU and the rest of the Open Source community currently face.

"Secret Hardware"
Hardware manufacturers increasingly tend to keep their hardware specifications secret. This makes it difficult to write free drivers. This makes it difficult to write free drivers so that Linux and other kernels (such as Xfree86) can support new hardware. GNU has recognized this problem as a threat to the continuity of free software, claiming that "we have free systems today, but we will not have them tomorrow if we cannot support tomorrow's computers".

GNU describes two methods of coping with this problem. The first is merely to use only hardware that is supported by free software. With increasing numbers of free software users, secrecy of specifications would become a self-defeating policy for manufacturers.

Reverse engineering is the other, more active approach, especially for programmers in support of the Open Source Movement. However, the question remains if programmers will have enough determination to undertake such large projects, and be willing to invest money and time into them.

"Non-free Libraries"
Proprietary software programming libraries that work on free operating systems such as GNU/Linux have been somewhat of a trap for free software developers. The libraries are off-the-shelf programming tools that provide convenience for developers, and thus are quite attractive to the programmers of free software. However, the use of these "non-free libraries" in widely distributed packages such as a free operating system is a potential copyright infringement, and thus subverts the cause of free-design. Even worse, for the Open Source community, if a proprietary library gains popularity, it may creep into the free-software code base through the work of an unsuspecting programmer.

Between 1996 and 1998, just that happened. A non-free GUI toolkit library, Qt, was used in a substantial collection of free software, called the desktop KDE. Free GNU/Linux systems were unable to use KDE, because of the proprietary restrictions on the Qt library. However, some commercial distributors of GNU/Linux systems who were not strict about using purely free software included KDE with their distributed systems. The KDE group was actively encouraging programmers to use Qt, and millions of new Linux users were left without realizing the potential copyright violation.

The Open-Source community has responded to this problem in two ways: GNOME and Harmony.

GNOME, the GNU Network Object Model Environment, is Gnu's desktop project. It was started in 1997 by a joint venture between Red Hat, which offered support, and Miguel de Icaza, with the intention of providing similar desktop facilities, but using purely free software.

Harmony is a library that is compatible with, and a replacement for Qt, making it possible to run KDE software on the GNU/Linux system.

As an interesting note regarding the effectiveness of Gnu's tactics, the developers of Qt announced, in November 1998, a change of license which, when carried out, would make Qt free software. Presumably, this occurred in part because of the community's response to the problem that Qt posed as proprietary software. Even so, Qt was stilled deemed undesirable, owing to claims that the license was still "inconvenient" and "inequitable". Finally, in September 2000, Qt was released under the GNU General Public License, essentially solving the problem.

Even with this type of success, a question remains: How will the open source community respond to similar temptations in the future? "Will the whole community understand the need to stay out of the trap? Or will many of us give up freedom for convenience, and produce a major problem?" (

Software Patents
At the crux of the battle between open source and proprietary software is the issue of software patents. According to GNU members, software patents are the largest threat that the Open Source community currently faces, as they can put algorithms and features off limits for up to twenty years. For example, LZW, the algorithm used to compress GIFs was patented in 1983, and still, free high-quality GIF software cannot be released. More recently, MP3 compression has also been patented. In 1998, a free program for producing MP3 audio files was removed from distribution under threat of a patent suit.

When dealing with software patents, GNU admits that there are few encouraging venues. Namely, these are searching for evidence to invalidate the patent, and looking for alternatives to the patented feature, but they certainly do not always work. And when both methods fail, a patent may force all free software to lack some features that users want, forcing them to choose between Stallman writes: "Those of us who value free software for freedom's sake will stay with free software anyway. We will manage to get work done without the patented features. But those who value free software because they expect it to be technically superior are likely to call it a failure when a patent holds it back".

More recently, GNU has taken action against, which has obtained a patent (US patent (5,960,411)) on the idea known as one-click purchasing. One-click purchasing sends information about a user's identity whenever he or she purchases an item through a web browser. The browser sends a "cookie" to Amazon's server, a kind of code that it received previously from the same server. Amazon, in order to protect what they deem proprietary technology, has sued to block use of one-click technology by other e-commerce companies.

GNU, on the other hand, maintains that Amazon is unfairly trying to monopolize an obvious idea, and construes the lawsuit as an attack against the World Wide Web and e-commerce in general. Gnu's stance on the issue is as follows:

The idea patented here is just that a company can give you something which you can subsequently show them to identify yourself for credit. This is nothing new: a physical credit card does the same job, after all. Amazon's response to people who write about the patent contains a subtle misdirection, which is worth analyzing: The patent system is designed to encourage innovation, and we spent thousands of hours developing our 1-ClickR shopping feature.

If they did spend thousands of hours, they surely did not spend it thinking of the general technique that the patent covers. So if they are telling the truth, what did they spend those hours doing? Perhaps they spent some of the time writing the patent application. That task was surely harder than thinking of the technique. Or perhaps they are talking about the time it took designing, writing, testing, and perfecting the scripts and the web pages to handle one-click shopping. That was surely a substantial job.

Looking carefully at their words, it seems the "thousands of hours developing" could include either of these two jobs.

But the issue here is not about the details in their particular scripts (which they do not release to us) and web pages (which are copyrighted anyway). The issue here is the general idea, and whether Amazon should have a monopoly on that idea.

Are you, or I, free to spend the necessary hours writing our own scripts, our own web pages, to provide one-click shopping? Even if we are selling something other than books, are we free to do this? That is the question. Amazon seeks to deny us that freedom, with the eager help of a misguided US government.

Hence, GNU encourages individuals to boycott Amazon until they repeal their lawsuit and patent rights. As Amazon is a retailer, they must be wary of their perception in the public eye. Public disgust can affect their profits. While such boycotts may not directly change patent law, they may call attention to the issue and spread demand for change.

GNU, as the forerunner in the Open Source Movement, clearly has its work out for itself. It faces the task of maintaining enthusiasm both inside and outside of the Open Source community, without which, there would not be sufficient funds or manpower to challenge proprietary software. GNU has often shouldered this burden by leading through example. Currently, it has many open source initiatives, the overwhelming majority of which are software projects. However, GNU still manages to lead the occasional boycott or grassroots movement.