The Linux Link
“Richard Stallman: Innovative Genius or Tinfoil-Hat-Wearing Nutcase?”
by James Hartnett

Richard Stallman is one of the most influential and productive computer programmers alive today. He may also be one of the oddest.

Stallman's claim to programming fame began when he wrote a text editor called "emacs." The emacs text editor is more than just an editor. It was, in fact, the first (and still the best) integrated development environment—the perfect tool for programmers in any of the many programming languages used in the UNIX world.

Emacs is still one of the most popular programming tools in use today, and would alone have ensured Stallman's fame. But it was what he did afterward that was destined to have a far greater impact on the world: Richard Stallman founded the "free software movement."

Stallman is famous for his devotion to careful terminology. He has acknowledged that his use of the term "free software" has caused a lot of confusion. Free software doesn't mean software for zero cost; it means software that you have the freedom to use fully—to modify, to inspect, and to give to your colleagues and friends.

As Stallman put it: Free as in freedom of speech, not as in free beer.

If you buy software from Microsoft, you have only the company's word for what the software does (if it even tells you).

When you use free software, you have the source code. Just look and see for yourself what the software does. If you don't like it, or find a mistake, you can change the software directly.

These pragmatic reasons for preferring free software have been persuasive enough to convince many hard-nosed corporate executives to depend upon (and contribute to) many free software packages.

But these are not the reasons that inspired Richard Stallman. His motives are more idealistic.

The Idealism Behind Free Software

Stallman's ideas of software freedom were inspired more by the "golden rule" than any attempt to improve the software-development lifestyle. As explained in the original announcement of the GNU Project, Stallman said that he wanted programmers to work together to benefit society, not to work against each other in a quest for profit.

Stallman never objects to people working for a profit—merely to the way in which the proprietary software industry currently makes a profit: by restricting the freedom of users to fully use the software.

Stallman's idealism led him to break with the direction of software development in academia and industry. His GNU Project was so far from the norm that few knew what to make of it. No one could have predicted the effect that Stallman's efforts would have.

Stallman turned the world of software development upside down.

Almost 25 years later, the free software movement is a major force in software. Many of the tools used in the Internet are free software.

The GNU tools have also enabled a new operating system, Linux (or as Stallman refers to it, Linux/GNU). The Linux kernel would have been both impossible and useless without GNU, because it was inspired by and developed with GNU free software tools. And, without the GNU tools to run, the Linux kernel would be no more than an academic curiosity. The Linux kernel is the core system code that makes Linux work, but the GNU tools are what makes having a Linux system worthwhile.

Why Free Software Really Works

Stallman's vision, though it seemed completely crazy, has revolutionized software engineering.

Free software projects, unlike their proprietary counterparts, continue to improve over generations of developers.

The efforts of a proprietary software company necessarily stop with the end of that company, or that product line. No matter how many loyal fans there may be, no matter how many users might depend on a piece of software, if the corporation that owns it decides to drop it, or if it goes out of business, then that software package is dead. No one can maintain it. No one can expand it. No one can port it to new computer systems.

With free software, good software becomes immortal.

The result is that useful, free software products tend to get better over time, and there are many software packages that have had several generations of developers, each taking over from the one before, without starting from scratch or throwing away any useful work.

Stallman has often pointed out that free software does not have to be developed for free, or given away for free. But the free software model does change the economic model of the software industry.

With proprietary software, you are locked into one company and need to pay whatever that company asks, or else abandon the software. With free software, that blackmail can't take place.

Plenty of companies can still make money.

IBM is one of the biggest contributors of free software to Linux, obviously not from idealistic motives. Free software allows the company to generate more profits.

IBM's free software success has demonstrated that free software is not anti-capitalist; it provides yet another way in which the free market provide solutions.

The Ways of Genius

It's customary for geniuses to be eccentric, and Stallman is no exception. He has numerous quirks and causes, many of which can be found on his personal Web page (www.stallman.org).

Other programmers report that Stallman is extremely difficult to work with. He has been called a "control-freak" who doesn't play well with others.

Although his reputation for eccentricity may be well-deserved, it does not detract from his accomplishments and contributions to the field of software engineering. As one of the most famous programmers alive today, he is entitled to his quirks.

Is Stallman a genius or a nutcase? Perhaps both. But he has changed the world forever.




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09/21/2007