Weight of Intransigence

In May, in a column titled "Strengths and Weaknesses," I wrote about having learned that those two things can often be one and the same. At the time, I didn't fully appreciate just how often.

My subject then was Robert Madge, founder of the once highflying Token Ring networking company Madge Networks. I had spoken with him about the rise and fall of his company. What led to both, I learned, was his unwavering, single-minded focus on the company's positioning as an independent Token Ring vendor.

"If you step back and look at it, a logical move for a company whose technology is going into decline ... would be to merge with or be sold to another company," Madge told me. "In hindsight, it would have been the logical course."

In the end, the same stubbornness that got him to the top took the bottom out from under him.

"People's weaknesses and strengths are normally the same things," Madge said. "The reason why I didn't see the writing on the wall, when the best thing to do was to sell the company, is probably the same reason why I built the company in the first place."

If there's one person in the technology sector who needs to think long and hard about that lesson, it's Richard Stallman.

I wrote about Stallman in my "Standing on Principle" column last week. Founder of the GNU Project and an outspoken champion of the free software movement, Stallman is well known for his passionate distaste for proprietary software.

He told me in an interview that he believes proprietary software is unethical and unjust because it subjugates the user. "It's better not to use computers than to use proprietary software," Stallman proclaimed.

The column drew some interesting feedback from readers on both sides of the issue, including one who wrote that, thanks to the GNU Project, "we have a phenomenal blend of free software that allows for the creation of an incredible computing environment." But most couldn't get past the extremism.

"I'm all for the free and open-source movements because they create competition. But saying that commercial software subjugates the user is way over the top," wrote a reader who said he's spent his entire professional career working with software. "The important freedom I enjoy is being free to embrace all forms of creative endeavor. To eschew one over the other because it is proprietary verges on the irrational. To insist that only your point of view is correct is a form of arrogance. To claim that 'it's better not to use computers than to use proprietary software' is foolishness. I detest fanaticism in any form."

While I don't disagree with any of those opinions, I was unwilling to simply write Stallman off as a fanatic. Instead, citing his commitment to the principles he believes in, I said I respect him and that he has earned the admiration of his many supporters.

But there's another part to this story, and it's the part that Stallman would be well advised to ponder. His own reaction to last week's column came in the form of an e-mail with the subject line "Hostile article."

"I read [the column] and was struck by the hostility of it," Stallman wrote. "Its main topic is that you think my views are 'over the top.'"

What I actually wrote was the rather obvious statement that most everyone would find his "better not to use computers" contention to be over the top. The theme of my column, in fact, was that Stallman is a man who stands by his principles.

Yet Stallman was so blindly focused on the perceived challenge to his views that he couldn't see that. A subsequent e-mail exchange indicated to me that Stallman equates nonendorsement of his views with hostility.

Stallman needs to recognize that the singularity of focus that built the free software movement must now give way to the accommodation of other views. Otherwise, that movement will collapse under the weight of its own intransigence. Just ask Robert Madge.

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

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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