Stallman on Steve Jobs: Tasteless or Incisive?

Well it’s starting to look like 2011 is just going to be one, long roller-coaster ride. No sooner does the prospect of a quiet day loom on the horizon than something happens to turn the world on its ear once again.

In the past two weeks, of course, we’ve had to endure the loss of not just one but two leading figures in the technology world: Steve Jobs and Dennis Ritchie. That’s been upsetting enough, but — as if we needed any more turmoil — we’ve also had free software guru Richard Stallman expounding his views on Apple’s former CEO, causing widespread outrage in the process.

“I’m not glad he’s dead, but I’m glad he’s gone,” wrote Stallman, quoting former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. “We all deserve the end of Jobs’ malign influence on people’s computing.”

One could argue that it might have been a good idea to let a little more time than just a day pass after Jobs’ death before expressing such opinions; then again, this is RMS we’re talking about.

‘What Everyone Is Too Polite to Say’

Not surprisingly, talk about RMS is just what bloggers have been doing ever since, too — and not always in the most understanding of terms.

Nearly 1,500 comments appeared on Slashdot alone, but not before even more fuel was added to the fire. Namely, none other than Eric Raymond spoke out in defense of Stallman, while “What Everyone Is Too Polite to Say About Steve Jobs” was a headline that appeared over on Gawker.

So, which is it? Did the free software community’s key spokesman put his foot in his proverbial mouth in a big way, or was he just telling it like it is? Linux Girl encountered arguments on both sides on the streets of the blogosphere.

‘He Has Become a Liability’

“RMS needs to understand RIP better rather than rant about DRM,” said Slashdot blogger yagu. “I think he’s wrong here. He can rant as much as he wants, but in my opinion his rants after Jobs’ passing lack class. Not nice.”

Similarly, “RMS needs to just go away,” consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told Linux Girl. “It’s not that he was wrong about what he said, but you don’t just go and say something like that while people are mourning.

“I met him a few years ago, and the impression I got was that he is someone who has spent so much time in his little bubble that he has no idea how normal people do things,” Mack added. “At this point he has become a liability to the cause he has been working so hard for. He really needs to stop talking to the press and leave talking to someone more articulate.”

‘An Open Sore and a Laughing Stock’

Indeed, “there’s a time and a place,” agreed Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site. “Urinating on the open grave of someone you did not know personally, with no consideration for their friends, family, or co-workers, is simply not done.”

Stallman’s “zealotry” has blinded him to reality, Hudson added, causing him to “brand anyone who doesn’t agree as evil.”

Not only did his approach “put the focus on the messenger instead of the message,” but it also “devalued both,” Hudson asserted. “And because it was so public, those who disagree have two choices — condone it by our silence, or speak out against both the message and the perp behind it.”

In short, “Stallman is like that old comic with one schtick, which he continues to milk because that’s all he’s got,” she said. “He is a kindred spirit to Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist, demonizing anyone who disagrees with him or his values.”

Ultimately, “he’s become both an open sore and a laughing-stock,” Hudson concluded. “Either the FSF gets rid of him, or they will suffer the same fate.”

‘It Shows RMS Has No Taste’

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet took a similar view.

“It shows RMS has no taste,” hairyfeet said. “What kind of talk is that? Whether you liked his product or not, the man had just died. Hadn’t anyone taught RMS that if you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all?”

The episode underlies a bigger problem, however, hairyfeet ventured — specifically, “RMS and his elitist, arrogant attitude.

“You see, with RMS, it isn’t just that he offers free software, it is that he wants you to have NO CHOICE BUT free software,” hairyfeet explained. “I’d say that makes him just as bad or worse than anybody you can name.”

‘Jobs Deserves to Be Respected’

Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, is “ambivalent about Apple in general,” he told Linux Girl. “Where I think RMS errs is in blaming Jobs specifically” for the opacity and lock-in of the company’s products.

More open platforms probably wouldn’t be “half of what they are today” without the resulting competition, so “I suppose I end up disagreeing with RMS despite the fact that I totally understand and even to a slight extent sympathize with his points,” Travers explained.

“Jobs deserves to be respected for who he was in relation to the Free and Open Source Software worlds: A serious, capable, and generally honorable adversary worthy of the highest respect,” Travers concluded.

‘Those Crazy Prophets’

Along similar lines, “Richard M. Stallman is entitled to say what he thinks,” Roberto Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor, told Linux Girl. “We are all entitled to our opinions.”

At the same time, “as much as I like the open source community, sometimes I think some of them act like those crazy prophets predicting the end of the world,” Lim added. “Actually, those guys are less insane — one day the world will actually come to an end.

“I appreciate all RMS has done,” Lim continued. “I appreciate what Steve Jobs has accomplished. I appreciate what Dennis Ritchie has achieved. In the end, all these great inventors and innovators together with many others one-upping each other is why I can send this [email] to you half a world away.”

Bottom line? “We are now one man down. It is just unfortunate that RSM cannot seem to appreciate this,” Lim concluded.

‘A Crime Against Humanity’

As on Slashdot, however, others thought Stallman had a good point.

“RMS has it right,” blogger Robert Pogson told Linux Girl, for example.

“Steve Jobs was an enemy of Free Software and freedom to use PCs flexibly,” Pogson explained. “He was often a ‘partner’ of M$. His ‘walled garden’ approach to software is a blight on the world.

“His exclusion of competitive technology is a horrible abuse if not illegal,” Pogson went on. “His concentration on high-margin markets to the exclusion of those on the other side of the Digital Divide is a crime against humanity. His patent-trolling should be a trigger to eliminate software patents.”

‘Champion of the Rights of the User’

Martin Espinoza, a blogger on Hyperlogos, took a similar view, he told Linux Girl, noting his explanation on Slashdot.

“The time to make the statement is while it is relevant,” Espinoza wrote.

“It is critical that we receive this message — not you and I, maybe, but as many of the wide-eyed legions of Apple as can be reached,” he added. “Because what Apple represents is precisely the same thing that Microsoft or Sony represents: a dearth of choice.

“Stallman might be an egotistical ass, but he is certainly the foremost champion of the rights of the user,” Espinoza went on. “Some programmers don’t like that, so they don’t like the GPL, and they don’t like Free Software. They call it a virus and they would prefer to stamp it out rather than have to deal with something so confusing.”

In short, “other people can make the same point in a month, and a year, and reach other audiences, but this point needs to be made now and it needs to be made well,” he concluded. “Stallman has done both.”

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter.


  • Jobs while a great designer, did quite a few things that were detrimental to software freedom in his zeal for perfection. His goal was to make money for Apple, witch sometimes helped free software, but often hurt it.

    Jobs and Stallman were much alike, both are charistmatic idealists who tend to lead by grand visions, sweeping changes and lofty goals.

    I also disagree with the narrative of Jobs as an innovator or inventor. He was rather an impeccable implementer. He took ideas that had already been proven in concept, and put it in a useful package. The other thing he had a real knack for is timing, knowing exactly when existing tech was capable of making something really useful for people. His most powerful gift though was to convince people he deserved full credit for the idea.

  • Mr. Stallman may lack some social sensibility, but if that was a requirement for tech types, we would still be waiting on the printing press.

    The irony is that Mr Jobs unique skills were vision and the ability to communicate a vision to the masses.

    As a tech with some civilian communication skills, I had many questions about Mr. Jobs death. I would respond that he was an innovator. I would finish by letting people know that he was a bit of a fascist in the way he did business.

    My stage is not the size of Mr. Stallman’s, but tech types have a responsibility to share an accurate picture for history’s sake.

    • Can you make yourself and the community sound any MORE nutty please? Because the whole "tinfoil hatter basement dweller" thing is an image we ALL need attached to Linux!

      FTW the "secure boot" thing? Not even MSFT’s idea, alright? they are just ripping off ChromeOS which does THE EXACT SAME THING with their own secure boot. But if you think MSFT is gonna be able to lock ANY OS out? Well I have some penny stocks you might be interested in. Do you have ANY idea how many new PCs are sold every. single. year. that get OLDER versions of Windows put on? Its a HUGE number friend and MSFT would be slitting their own throats if all those MSDN licenses were suddenly made worthless because a company couldn’t put on an older version.

      So stop being paranoid, or better yet direct that paranoia at a place it deserves to be…Google. from the looks of things Google is getting set to take Linux away from you and "pull a TiVo" with it thanks to Android. If Google locks down Android where do you think most developers will go? hint: You can make money with the Android market.

      • But google requires chromebooks to have a dev-mode or a dev-switch that will disable secure boot. MSFT’s specifications have no such requirement, though neither is there a prohibition. Ideal solution is to include a method for user management of keys in the UEFI specification.

        Android is already fairly closed for many purposes. They suffer from a NIH mentatility, and do not accept outside contributions. Thier irrational fear of the GPL has put them in a position on being sued by oracle and possibly forfeiting the entire platform on that point because they decided to reverse engineer rather than use the GPL’d code which contained the implicit patent licenses.

  • Stallman is right about Jobs and others that want to destroy our freedom of choice and by doing so make obscene profits. Both Apple and Microsoft want to make it impossible for free software to exist. Microsoft’s new push for the "secure boot" hardware on all PC’s is one frightening example. Apple of course has had a lock on its hardware for years thus furthering its monopolistic desires. There is certainly a place for propitiatory hardware and software but not if it forces all others out of the market. Monopolies are supposed to be illegal.

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