In Defense of rms

I can already feel that at least half the people reading this sentence are outraged. They are outraged at Richard Stallman for his “callous”, “heartless” eulogy for Steve Jobs. They are about to become outraged at me as well because I am going to defend Stallman.

The most civilized criticism[1] against Stallman came in the form of “Why couldn’t you have been more tactful?” I see where this criticism comes from. By offering his brutally honest opinion of Steve Jobs, Stallman probably drove hundreds of thousands of people away from the Free Software Foundation (FSF). This is unfortunate because FSF has done an insurmountable amount of work over the past three decades to improve the open infrastructure for computing, and Stallman’s eulogy itself, once you account for his viewpoint, is not as outrageous as it appears.

Here is the simple truth: Stallman might be crazy, but he is not wrong to say Steve Jobs and Apple Inc. were not free software’s best friends. Steve Jobs had a remarkably deep understanding of software for someone so endowed with design and product acumen, but he never actively promoted free software. All Steve Jobs cared was carrying out his vision for his companies, and software has always been a means to this end. Whenever free software proved to help the product move forward (like gcc among hundreds of other GNU software), he gladly used it. But if he believed proprietary software was going to provide him and his companies a decisive edge over competitors (like a significant part of the software Apple has ever shipped, or the rendering engines for Pixar), he fiercely protected the relevant intellectual properties.

As the founder and a principal proponent of the free software movement, Stallman could not have offered any flattering, disingenuous obituary praising Jobs’ accomplishments. In Stallman’s eye, all the products Jobs and his companies created – iPhone, iPad, Macintosh – are not really accomplishments. All of them, in his radical but consistent view, were setbacks to the cause of free software because they violated the principles of free software in one way or another. Stallman has dedicated his entire life to the freedom of software just as Steve Jobs dedicated his entire life to delivering quality computing devices to the hands of consumers. Why would Stallman compromise his viewpoint and praise his nemesis just because he died?

But, but, how about Steve ‘I-throw-a-chair-when-Apple-announces-a-new-i-product’ Ballmer? Even that profusingly sweating, constantly agitated Microsoft CEO issued an obituary!

Steve Ballmer wrote an obituary for two reasons. First, as Microsoft CEO, he had no other choice but to say something, and it had to be something positive. Remaining silent, or worse yet, making a quip at the expense of an enormously respected ex-CEO of the beloved rival company, is just a terrible business decision. It would do nothing but further tarnish Microsoft’s brand. Second, Ballmer and Jobs are far more alike than either of them is to Stallman. Microsoft and Apple share the common goal of selling computing devices and software. Sure, their approaches have been markedly different, but they fundamentally have the same idea when it came to software: software is a product to be sold. Stallman is, and has always been, different. He has always believed that software should be free, in both senses of the word. Ballmer, I believe, could sympathize far better with Jobs than Stallman ever could.

It would be glib for us to deny that we have immensely benefited from all the free software Stallman and his followers have authored. If you have ever used emacs or compiled programs with gcc, you have benefited from numerous people all inspired by Stallman’s initiatives. Hell, if you have programmed anything, or if you have even used any program[2], you have benefited from Stallman because 99% of the programming language runtimes requires gcc to be built. Oh, by the way, Linux kernel is built with gcc, too. So, no gcc, no Linux kernel, no cheap web servers, no Google, Facebook or Twitter. And you would be moping around because you can no longer google, facebook, or tweet. When it comes to contribution to the open infrastructure of software, nobody comes close to GNU and FSF.

What has driven GNU and FSF to produce so much software for free? It’s Stallman’s singular vision and unwavering convinction that software cannot be anything but free. I do not know anyone else in the world who refuses to use a computer simply because its BIOS is not “free”. The freedom of software is Stallman’s lifeblood, and nothing is going to stop him from advocating for free software, even Steve Jobs’ death.

Since last Wednesday, countless obituaries for Steve Jobs have sprung from every corner of the Internet. About 70% of them cites Steve Jobs’ Stanford speech, which Ken Auletta aptly called “the Gettysburg address of graduation speeches”, and about 40% of them references the “Think Different” ad, which, in hindsight, sang the prelude of Apple’s current domination.

The irony, I must say, is that both the speech and the ad justify Stallman’s insensitive eulogy more than undermine it, and they came directly from the man he mocked. In the speech, Jobs says,

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

This is exactly how Steve Jobs lived his life, and exactly how Richard Stallman is living his life. Ever since he realized the venomous consequences of proprietary software, Stallman followed his heart and invented Copyleft and GPL towards the ultimate goal of eradicating proprietary software. Had Stallman ever stopped and listened to the “dogma”, none of this would have happened. His goal is the complete freedom of software, and everything else is secondary.

Here is the entire script of Think Different.

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Quite frankly, if Richard Stallman isn’t crazy, I have no fucking clue who is. While he has many dissenters, he has as many loyal followers, and the buzz his eulogy created shows how the world still cannot ignore him. And if you do not see any genius in emacs, gcc or glibc, there are only two possibilities. You are either not a programmer, or you are stupid.

I am not telling anyone to share Stallman’s view one-hundred percent. I, for one, wrote this piece on a Macbook Pro, which instantly makes me Stallman’s enemy[3]. But at the same time, I compiled the nginx web server and php 5.3.8 with gcc to host my website, and it goes without saying nginx and php use a slew of GNU libraries. I am a beneficiary of both Steven P. Jobs and Richard M. Stallman.

Geniuses can, and should, continue to speak their minds. The rest of us should just shut up, appreciate what they build, and feel lucky to have lived in the same generation.

  1. Just as expected, there are numerous incoherent rants agains rms with regards to his eulogy. I am ignoring them.
  2. I remind you that the very browser you are reading this essay in is, indeed, a program.
  3. I would be thrilled to have Stallman write an eulogy for me however terse or backhanded it would be. At the same time, I really hope this wouldn't happen at all because I am good 30 years younger than he is.