Thoughts on Richard Stallman and his Steve Jobs comment

A couple days after the death of Steve Jobs Twitter was abuzz with a quote from Richard Stallman:

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.

Better choices of words could have been used here, but at the end of the day RMS is entitled to his own opinion and I support that he expresses it, even if my views on the topic are quite different, as I’ll get into in a moment.

People who are deeply dedicated to a cause as RMS is (Greenpeace comes to mind here) are usually pretty good at garnering attention, but they never really effect change. They do keep getting publicity by saying controversial things (and I admit I’m contributing to this publicity in a small way by blogging about it) but what ever really happens? What advancements in our rights as computer users have taken place as a result of RMS? I can’t really think of any.

RMS is always quick to speak out against new, convenient technologies (nowadays the plethora of web apps are a target of his), saying that we should put up with the inconveniences that the open-source software has in exchange for the peace of mind of knowing that we own the data and we truly own the software, in that it’s ours to do what we want with and modify as we please. In RMS’s mind, software that you’re not permitted to modify is a travesty to him, and he feels that we’re imprisoned by such restrictions.

Steve Jobs, on the other hand, has a completely different perspective. To him, the imprisoning aspect of technology isn’t the licensing agreement by which you use the software, but rather the fact that the software on a computer is too hard for you to understand how to use. You may be legally entitled to modify the software as you wish and make it your very own by customizing it to no end, but you may as well not be permitted to if you can’t understand how to use the program in the first place.

Free software has some great advantages to it by virtue of being free.  The Linux kernel is worked on by some of the smartest people from top universities and corporations that need a great OS.  It has proven to be a great operating system for servers and tons of embedded devices because it can be customized for exactly the needs the specifications call for. It has thus gained great adoption.

But if you look at RMS’s web site, it looks like it’s from the 90s.  No effort has been put into making the web site appealing to use.  And the GNU software he uses remains as arcane to use today as it was in the 80s. If you look at some of the open-source GUIs out there, you can really start to see the myopia of the FOSS developers. It’s always playing catch-up with advancements made by Microsoft (yes, Microsoft), Apple and others. I’ve seen no usability advancements in the past ten years where the presence was first in an open-source implementation.  And as we start to do more in the cloud, open-source solutions likewise are lagging behind. As far as I know there is no open-source flavor of Google Docs; it’s all centered around transferring and managing files yourself. Remember how Diaspora was going to save us all from the oppression of Facebook? It’s all but vaporware and adoption is nonexistent.

And RMS is ignoring the fact that Apple is quite keen on using open source products and following and creating open standards. It was Apple, not RMS or the Free Software Foundation, who used its clout to push the web away from proprietary plugins like Flash. It was Apple who created the first legal music store that had reasonable DRM and then later went DRM free for music. It’s Apple who has shipped an OS based on an open-source kernel that has gotten mass adoption and is #2 behind Windows. And it’s Apple whose design is the envy of the entire tech industry.

RMS, you make a lot of valid points (especially about the dangers of software patents), but more permissive licenses alone don’t make better products.

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