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'India is ready for the development and use of free software'

Richard Stallman, founder and president of the Free Software Foundation was in India to officially launch a sister concern of the FSF in Trivandrum. He believes India can save tremendous amounts of money by shunning proprietary software that is paid for

“GNU/Linux is more efficient; GNU/Linux on a two years old second-hand computer can be as fast to use as Windows on the latest computer”

The word 'Free' sets hearts aflutter and sends housewives running to claim their free teaspoon, free soap dish or free PET jars. But if you ask Richard Stallman for free software he'll talk about the three freedoms he thinks can make the world a better place. For those who came in late, Stallman is the founder and president of the Free Software Foundation, which promotes the development and use of free software. The FSF also helps spread awareness of the ethical and political issues of freedom in the use of software.

"The Free Software Foundation is idealistic: we believe that software should be free, as a matter of ethics. That is to say, computer users are entitled to the freedom to run, modify, and redistribute the software they use," says Stallman, who believes India can lead the Free Software Foundation by supporting these freedoms. Stallman was in India to officially launch a sister concern of the FSF in Trivandrum, which has received support from the Government of Kerla.

Walking about in his socks he recalls an incident when he had to struggle with a troublesome laser printer because he could not modify its program. "We were prisoners of our software because we did not have the source code from the printer manufacturer," he says in frustration.

Stallman (and a group of programmers) found themselves in dire straits when Digital discontinued its PDP-10 computer in the early 70s. This system had a non-proprietary operating system that programmers could freely modify and enhance. "In those days software companies often distributed free software and programmers co-operated with each other. By the early eighties almost all software was proprietary, which means users could no longer co-operate with each other to improve and distribute software. So I had been elected by circumstances to solve this problem, that's why I set out to develop a free operating system."

To keep the co-operative spirit in the computing community alive, Stallman (and other proponents of free software) launched the GNU Project in 1984. Their objective was to develop a free, Unix-like operating system. GNU (pronounced 'guh-new') is a recursive acronym for 'GNU Not Unix.'

Stallman clarifies that the word 'free' pertains to freedom not price. "You may or may not pay for a program," he says. "Either way, once you have the software you have three freedoms first, the freedom to copy the program and give it away to friends and co-workers; second, the freedom to change the program, by having the full source code; third, the freedom to distribute an improved version and thus help build this community."

Deeper into conversation with Stallman, we learn that Linux is just a Kernel, the core part of an operating system. An operating system needs other components for various services like printing, disk management, etc. These components were originally written for the proposed GNU operating system and are now used with Linux, which really is GNU/Linux. Today GNU/Linux is used by more than 20 million users.

"Confusion sets in when people call the whole system 'Linux.' Then people think that the whole system was started by Linus (Torvalds) in 1991. Actually it was started by us in 1984, under the name GNU. We had almost finished it by 1991--in fact, the kernel was the only missing part. That is why combining GNU and Linux produced a complete system," informs Stallman.

That also explains why the GNU/Linux operating system is free today. But this would not be without the efforts of Stallman and others who have been supporting the movement for free software right from 1985, when they started the Free Software Foundation. The FSF is dedicated to promoting computer users' right to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer programs.

Stallman estimates that the total paid for all legal Microsoft software in India would amount to $500 million, and feels India can save "a tremendous amount of money" by shunning proprietary software. He also believes India is ready to contribute to the free software movement.

"There are enough committed activists now to make it possible, and by getting organized, we can encourage more use and development of free software in India," says Stallman. "In particular we hope to encourage schools to use GNU/Linux. GNU/Linux is more efficient; GNU/Linux on a two years old second-hand computer can be as fast to use as Windows on the latest computer. Schools could get far more computers if they could use a previous generation to good effect."

And how might this free software be distributed and installed on an existing base of five million PCs, when majority of users here are not programmers or tech savvy?

"GNU/Linux users frequently hold 'install fests' where people who know how to install the system do it for whoever comes and asks for help. As the number of GNU/Linux users increases, a larger number will also learn how to install the system, so the rate will increase," Stallman says confidently.

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