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What Open Source Can Learn From Steve Jobs, Part 2

By Barbara Hudson
Nov 1, 2011 5:00 AM PT

What Open Source Can Learn From Steve Jobs, Part 1

What Open Source Can Learn From Steve Jobs, Part 2

The Fall of the House of Stallman

The blind hatred of Free Software Foundation President Richard Stallman toward proprietary programs is such that he has given speeches in which he advocated for software piracy. Stallman wrote this the day after Steve Jobs 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.'"

If you were to take that as something a bitter loser would say, you'd be right. Stallman doesn't believe that programs should compete on either technical merit or on how much users like them. To the contrary, his speeches, which you can find on the FSF Europe website, contain material such as this:

I'm all in favour of the principle that it's good to reward people who do things that contribute to society and it's good to punish people, one way or another, if they do things that harm society. This means that people who develop Free Software that's useful deserve a reward, and people who develop proprietary software that's attractive deserve a punishment.
To Stallman, Jobs must have been a double helping of evil -- both Apple software and hardware must seem almost sinfully proprietary and attractive to him. Since his "Boycott Apple" campaign failed, and he can't convince people to change on technical merit or on the facts, what's left? How about propaganda?

For those of us who had to read 1984 in school, the head of the Free Software Foundation sounds like he's channeling the Ministry of Truth. If you remember the party slogan "Freedom is Slavery," you might find this quote eerily similar: "It's a mistake to equate freedom to 'the freedom of choice.'"

Most people would say that having freedom of choice is fundamental to exercising freedom. Taking away a choice, especially by demonizing those who offer choices you don't approve of, is usually associated with political or religious fanatics, not a meritocracy such as software.

When your friend says 'that's a nice program, could I have a copy?' At that moment, you will have to choose between two evils. One evil is: give your friend a copy and violate the licence of the program. The other evil is: deny your friend a copy and comply with the licence of the program.

Once you are in that situation, you should choose the lesser evil. The lesser evil is to give your friend a copy and violate the licence of the program.

Whereas the developer of the program has deliberately attacked the social solidarity of your community. Deliberately tried to separate you from everyone else in the World. So if you can't help doing wrong in some direction or other, better to aim the wrong at somebody who deserves it, who has done something wrong, rather than at somebody who hasn't done anything wrong.

This is the same childish "stick it to da man!" rationalization that kids use to justify everything from pirating music and movies to carjacking and robbing convenience stores. It's also an admission that you can't compete on either technical merit or execution.

Recall how Jobs ended the demonization of Microsoft within Apple, got his people to focus on doing what Apple does best, and ended up with the most valuable company in the world? Contrast that with Stallman's approach, which is held by far too many, and helps explain why "GNU/linux" is still a rounding error in the desktop market.

Negative campaigns turn people away. Nobody wants to hear about how "evil" their current software provider is. They want to hear what you can do better. Telling people they should pirate software not only makes Stallman look seedier than he already does -- it reflects badly on open source in general.

Biting the Hand That Feeds Code Contributions

This demonizing of programmers who write proprietary software for a living is not only silly, but also counterproductive. Many of those same programmers contribute to open source projects as part of their jobs; others do the same on their own time. Calling them "evil" or encouraging people to steal from them is only going to drive them away.

Contrast this "steal from the evil programmer" attitude with how Steve Jobs treated his people. When he came back to Apple, Apple was beaten down, a loser. He pushed everyone hard to be the best they could, and in doing so, communicated the message "I'm pushing you hard because I know that together, we are going to be the best at what we do."

It's one reason Apple held onto its talent despite offers of two and three times the pay. When people know you believe in them, not only can you push them harder -- they will push themselves harder. One long-term result has been that Apple survived long enough to contribute significant code back to the general software community, a practice that continues.

A further problem is how quickly the community jumps on any imagined slight. Google hasn't yet released all of the source to the latest version of Android. It doesn't matter that it's not required to, and that it's already released the parts that it is required to -- people are still attacking Google. The fact that the third-party server at -- which normally hosts all the files -- was compromised, and that everyone involved is being extra-cautious, falls on stone-deaf ears.

Going back a bit further, Novell was simultaneously lauded for spending tens of millions defending Linux against SCO, and demonized for making a "deal with the devil" with Microsoft that saw Linux desktops and servers get into thousands of businesses on Microsoft's dime.

A Final Lesson ...

There has been a long history of such attacks on anyone who "dares" to make a profit, even indirectly, with open source code that is licensed under the GPL. It's no coincidence that alternatives to large chunks of GPL code are under active development. At some point, putting up with the random noise of the self-appointed GNUstapo just isn't worth the hassle and the bad publicity.

Apple showed that switching to another base operating system can be done. It did it not once, but twice. Other companies might decide to take the same route rather than continue to deal with a community that doesn't "get it" or have a genuine interest in cooperating to help meet people's real needs.

Barbara Hudson's daughters and her dogs are a large part of who she is. As for computers, she's been writing code for longer than she really wants to admit. Now that she's returned to independent development, her current focus is on creating simpler and more secure code libraries. Her dream project? Creating the ultimate chess program. You can contact her at

Is "too much screen time" really a problem?
Yes -- smartphone addiction is ruining relationships.
Yes -- but primarily due to parents' failure to regulate kids' use.
Possibly -- long-term effects on health are not yet known.
Not really -- lack of self-discipline and good judgement are the problems.
No -- angst over "screen time" is just the latest overreaction to technology.
No -- what matters is the quality of content, not the time spent viewing it.