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Richard Stallman lives and works by his principles

By Don Tennant
August 11, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - I'm not above engaging in a little shameless name-dropping, especially when I know the dropped name will spark a reaction. So while chatting with attendees at the LinuxWorld conference in San Francisco last week, I made no secret of the fact that I had interviewed Richard Stallman a few days earlier. I marveled at the awe and admiration on the faces of many of my listeners.

The irony is that the subject of their veneration is a thorn in the side of the open-source community. Stallman has long disassociated himself from any endeavor that promotes the operating system commonly known as Linux without calling it by what he feels very strongly is its proper name: GNU/Linux.

Stallman started the free software movement in the early '80s when he launched the GNU Project and established the Free Software Foundation, an organization that he still heads. While many in the open-source community revere Stallman for the role he played in giving birth to the concept of freely sharing source code to develop software, the free software (think "free" as in freedom, not as in no cost) and open-source camps have taken divergent philosophical paths. Whereas the open-source community is willing to coexist peacefully with makers of propriety software, Stallman and other free-software purists insist that proprietary software is unethical and unjust and must not be tolerated.

I found out just how adamant Stallman is on the matter when I met with him at MIT. On the table in a small room outside his office was a laptop that could easily be mistaken for a toy. I recognized it as the product of One Laptop Per Child, the Nicholas Negroponte project to provide very-low-cost computers to schoolchildren.

"I decided to switch to one of these last November because it has a free BIOS program, and no other laptop in the world that I knew of was available without a proprietary BIOS program," Stallman said. "It took several months to arrange for us to get a machine, and then for me to switch to it. As I was switching, in April, the head of that project announced his betrayal of our community."

That "betrayal" was Negroponte's decision to run Windows on OLPC laptops.

"The machine's supposed to lead millions of children to freedom," Stallman said. "But instead I fear it will lead millions of children under the dominion of Microsoft."

When I suggested that adopting Windows was likely to make the OLPC machines more pervasive, Stallman bristled.

"It's completely misguided to try to make something a big success if it's doing a bad thing," he said. "Proprietary software subjugates the user. It's an injustice. And the idea that it's good to get people using computers regardless of everything else is shallow and misguided. It's better not to use computers than to use proprietary software."

Most everyone who would ever read or hear that statement would find it a little over the top, or maybe even over the top and way down the other side. I, for one, have no problem with proprietary software, and I'm comfortable that the remarkable accomplishments and benefits that have been achieved by computers running proprietary software speak for themselves.

Yet I find myself unwilling to write Stallman off as some anachronistic zealot. In fact, I respect him.

He went on to say that he's switching from the OLPC unit to a machine made by Chinese company Jiangsu Lemote Technology that can't run Windows because of the chip it uses. Unfortunately, it doesn't have a suspend-and-resume capability, which Stallman called "somewhat inconvenient." Nor does the battery charge while it's running, which he called "an annoyance."

"But it's worth it to you," I said.

"For freedom," he responded, "I will make a sacrifice."

Not enough of us are willing to truly sacrifice for the principles we believe in. If for no other reason than that, Stallman has earned the admiration he has inspired.

Don Tennant is editorial director of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com, and visit his blog at http://blogs.computerworld.com/tennant.

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