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GNU and Linux

Stallman’s goal, through the FSF, was to develop an entirely free computer operating system that could be downloaded, utilized, and changed by anyone. Stallman’s training was in the Unix operating system, one of the most widely used operating systems for large mainframe computers at universities and government laboratories at the time. The problem, however, was that Unix was a proprietary operating system (owned at the time by AT&T) and could not be distributed to other users without the threat of copyright infringement. Stallman and a group of programmers therefore took it upon themselves to begin rewriting the Unix operating system from scratch, one application at a time. Between the 1985—1992 period, they succeeded in replacing almost every Unix application that programmers relied on. Stallman playfully referred to this new collection of programs as “GNU,” which stood for “GNU’s Not Unix”—a recursive acronym. Despite the usefulness and popularity of some of these reconfigured programs among computer hackers and enthusiasts, they remained a loose collection of applications that did not cohere together as a full operating system. It was a young Finnish computer science student named Linus Torvalds who in 1991 actually finished the GNU operating system by creating the kernel for a version of Unix called Minix.25 Armed with his new operating system, which he dubbed “Linux,” along with Stallman’s GNU tools, he began to distribute an entirely free operating system that would develop throughout the 1990s and 2000s into a viable alternative to Windows and other proprietary operating systems.

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