Richard Stallman, the outspoken advocate for the free software movement who since the early �80s has branded proprietary software and those who produce it as �evil,� made it into the news last week when he directed his hatefulness at the memory of Steve Jobs. In the process, he demonstrated why he�s no longer anything more than a carnival sideshow on the technology circuit, and why his movement has sunk under the weight of its own intolerance.
In case you missed it, this is what Stallman wrote in his blog following Jobs� passing:
Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died.
As Chicago Mayor Harold Washington said of the corrupt former Mayor Daley, "I'm not glad he's dead, but I'm glad he's gone." Nobody deserves to have to die - not Jobs, not Mr. Bill, not even people guilty of bigger evils than theirs. But we all deserve the end of Jobs' malign influence on people's computing.
Unfortunately, that influence continues despite his absence. We can only hope his successors, as they attempt to carry on his legacy, will be less effective.
A lot of people were shocked by that. I wasn�t one of them. It was quintessential Stallman, an ode to obliviousness that only he could write. I conducted an extensive interview with Stallman in 2008, followed by a lengthy series of email exchanges, and I learned a lot about the man in the process. My first impression was a largely positive one. Here�s an excerpt from a column I wrote shortly after the interview:
I found out just how adamant Stallman is on the matter [of non-proprietary software] when I met with him at MIT. On the table in a small room outside his office was a laptop that could easily be mistaken for a toy. I recognized it as the product of One Laptop Per Child, the Nicholas Negroponte project to provide very-low-cost computers to schoolchildren.
"I decided to switch to one of these last November because it has a free BIOS program, and no other laptop in the world that I knew of was available without a proprietary BIOS program," Stallman said. "It took several months to arrange for us to get a machine, and then for me to switch to it. As I was switching, in April, the head of that project announced his betrayal of our community."
That "betrayal" was Negroponte's decision to run Windows on OLPC laptops. "The machine's supposed to lead millions of children to freedom," Stallman said. "But instead I fear it will lead millions of children under the dominion of Microsoft." When I suggested that adopting Windows was likely to make the OLPC machines more pervasive, Stallman bristled.
"It's completely misguided to try to make something a big success if it's doing a bad thing," he said. "Proprietary software subjugates the user. It's an injustice. And the idea that it's good to get people using computers regardless of everything else is shallow and misguided. It's better not to use computers than to use proprietary software."
Most everyone who would ever read or hear that statement would find it a little over the top, or maybe even over the top and way down the other side. I, for one, have no problem with proprietary software, and I'm comfortable that the remarkable accomplishments and benefits that have been achieved by computers running proprietary software speak for themselves.
Yet I find myself unwilling to write Stallman off as some anachronistic zealot. In fact, I respect him.
He went on to say that he's switching from the OLPC unit to a machine made by Chinese company Jiangsu Lemote Technology that can't run Windows because of the chip it uses. Unfortunately, it doesn't have a suspend-and-resume capability, which Stallman called "somewhat inconvenient." Nor does the battery charge while it's running, which he called "an annoyance."
"But it's worth it to you," I said.
"For freedom," he responded, "I will make a sacrifice."
Not enough of us are willing to truly sacrifice for the principles we believe in. If for no other reason than that, Stallman has earned the admiration he has inspired.
Most people would read a column like that about themselves and feel that they�d gotten a pretty fair shake, wouldn't you say? Not Stallman. His response to the column came in an email, with �Hostile article� in the subject line. Here�s the thrust of it:
I read [the column] and was struck by the hostility of it. Its main topic is that you think my views are �over the top.�
That prompted me to write a follow-up column the next week. After sharing Stallman�s response to my previous column, I wrote about my subsequent exchange with him and what that exchange compelled me to conclude:
What I actually wrote was the rather obvious statement that most everyone would find his "better not to use computers" contention to be over the top. The theme of my column, in fact, was that Stallman is a man who stands by his principles.
Yet Stallman was so blindly focused on the perceived challenge to his views that he couldn't see that. A subsequent e-mail exchange indicated to me that Stallman equates nonendorsement of his views with hostility.
Stallman needs to recognize that the singularity of focus that built the free software movement must now give way to the accommodation of other views. Otherwise, that movement will collapse under the weight of its own intransigence.
So here�s what I have to say directly to Richard Stallman: Your hateful eulogy to Steve Jobs testifies with stark clarity that the collapse I wrote about three years ago has now taken place. Just as assuredly as you created the free software movement, Richard, you destroyed it. The free software movement is dead. Eulogize that.