Tilting at Windows

By MIKE MILIARD  |  December 18, 2009

It's thanks to that pioneering project that more than one computer geek has proclaimed that "Stallman is God."

"That's a mistake," he demurs. "I'm not God — I'm just a saint." At many of his dozens and dozens of speeches each year, Stallman will don a flowing robe, clutch a netbook like a tablet, and place an old computer-disk platter on his head like a halo. Saint IGNUcius of the church of Emacs, he calls himself.

"I wanted GNU to be a convenient system for ordinary users, not just for wizards," says Stallman. "Because everybody who's using a computer deserves freedom."

Freedom. Sometimes it seems like Stallman spouts the word more than his moral/political antipode George W. Bush. But for Stallman, freedom is the ne plus ultra of social values. "All works of practical use have to be free," he insists. "It's not just software."

'Think free speech, not free beer.'
The FSF's mission is based around "the four essential freedoms," says Richard Stallman. "Freedom zero is the freedom to run the program as you wish. Freedom one is the freedom to study the source code, and then change it. Freedom two is the freedom to help other people — to redistribute exact copies of the program to others, when you wish. Freedom three is the freedom to contribute to your community — to distribute modified versions of the program when you wish."

If any one of those freedoms is missing from a piece of software, he argues, "that means a program imposes an unethical social system for its use. The use of a proprietary program is a social problem. The goal of the free-software movement is to put an end to this problem. All users should have these four freedoms because all users deserve them."

Consumed by a mission
He may be a deity to many, but plug "Stallman is" into Google, and the clause also comes back completed with some rather unflattering adjectives: "irrational" . . . "irrelevant" . . . "insane" . . . "an unabashed idiot."

And those descriptors don't come from bitter tech execs, fearful that his crusade is siphoning customers away from their lucrative programs. (Although corporations should be afraid: it was reported last week that a third of all netbooks shipped in 2009 came installed with GNU/Linux rather than Microsoft.)

Rather, they're usually from partisans of open-source software who (ostensibly, at least) should be his allies. For many lay people and journalists, the terms "open source" and "free" software are interchangeable. This is to Stallman's unending chagrin. The former is a development model, he explains (over and over again). The latter is a political movement.

And while both exist in opposition to corporate behemoths, their ends and means are often in conflict. "Open-source [partisans] never suggest that there's anything unethical about proprietary software," says Stallman. "They just don't want to rock that boat." Instead, they "want to convince businesses to adopt free software, and they figure that, if they raise any kind of ethical question, that it will be off-putting to businessmen."

Many in the open-source camp have little patience for his high-flown philosophizing. If the goal is to get as many people to use open-source software as possible, they argue, giving people guff for owning iPods isn't helpful.

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