How Richard Stallman got me to ponder extremism

This evening, I had the opportunity to attend a speech by a man whose work over the past decades enters into my life on a daily basis. The Network for Computational Nanotechnology at Purdue hosted Richard Stallman, the founder of the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation. Stallman is a well-known and controversial figure, not only because of his technical work, but also (primarily?) because of his idealism and activism. His un-nuanced views and public lack of tact have driven fans of his work away from the FSF. I went into the talk expecting some pot-stirring. I didn’t expect to walk out deep in thought.

Stallman opened with a discussion of terminology, drawing a distinction between free (for the purposes of this post, free software means libre, not gratis) and proprietary software.  It is an ethical, social, and political distinction, not a technical one. Free software, Stallman argues, is a contribution to society. Proprietary software is morally unjust. Stallman prefers, given the choice between writing proprietary software and doing nothing, that developers do nothing. Even though free software is often available at no cost, encouraging the adoption of free software should be framed as a moral issue, not an economic or practical one. Software as a Service (SaaS) is morally equal to proprietary software in Stallman’s view, regardless of the licensing of the software, because users have no control over it.

During the question-and-answer session at the end, this view brought a heated discussion from NCN director Dr. Gerhard Klimeck. NCN runs nanoHUB, which is effectively SaaS for nanotechnology simulation. Stallman seemed to argue that it was a niche and not really important to discuss. He also semi-adroitly dodged the question of how developers can make money with free software, only asserting that it is being done without providing the [mostly student] audience any insights as to how.

Stallman’s views are based on his personal morality and seem to be absolute. This is what occupied my thoughts on the walk back to my car. Because I largely agree with Stallman, I’ve been inclined to see his extremism as an annoying, but useful thing. By being on the edge, he defines the middle. But why should extremism that I happen to generally agree with be more valid than extremism that I disagree with? While extremism does help define the middle ground, it also poisons reasonable discussion. I admire and appreciate his technical accomplishments, but I think he hurts his own ideological cause.

CNET considered harmful

In my younger days, I made great use of CNET’s download.com website. It was an excellent tool for finding legal software. Apparently, it has also become an excellent tool for finding malware. An article posted to insecure.org describes how CNET has begun wrapping packages with an installer that bundles unwanted, potentially malicious software with the desired package.

This is terrible, and not just for the obvious reasons. It’s bad for the free software community because it makes us look untrustworthy. There’s a perception among some people (especially in the business world) that software can only be free if it’s no good. I suppose that’s one reason some in the community use “libre” to emphasize the free-as-in-freedom aspect. (Of course, not all free-as-in-beer software is free-as-in-freedom. That’s another reason the distinction can be important.)

When this conveniently-bundled malware causes problems for users, it’s not CNET who gets the blame. Users will unfairly blame the package developer, even though the developer had nothing to do with it. For well-established and well-respected packages like nmap, this reputation damage may not be that important. For a new project just getting started — or for the idea of free software in general — this can be devastating.

My future with Apple products

Despite having been given the “Mac Guy” appellation by Mario Marathon viewers, I am not an Apple fanboy.  Don’t get me wrong, I really like my current and previous Mac Book Pros.  The hardware has been solid (as a few encounters with gravity can attest to) and OS X is a great mix of power, reliability, and ease of use.  There’s no doubt that Apple turns out quality products, I don’t have an issues with their offerings.  It is a philosophical problem that I have.  As an advocate of openness, can I continue to support a company like Apple?

Apple has shown a willingness to support open source software on some occasions (as one would expect, those occasions are the ones where it suits Apple’s interests to be supportive), but at times the Apple model stands in opposition to the ideals of freedom that open source (and open standards) movements are based on.  The most recent example was reported by Wired earlier this week saying that the next minor release of Snow Leopard would “break” some “Hackintoshed” machines, specifically those using Intel’s Atom processor.  I get it, Apple is foremost a hardware company.  The software exists to promote the sales of the hardware, so allowing the software to be used on non-Apple hardware doesn’t serve Apple’s interests.

I don’t deny that Apple has the right to do what they’re doing, although if they had a larger market share, the Department of Justice might start taking notice.  No, to me, it’s not about whether or not they can do this, but whether or not they should.  The interests of Apple’s shareholders say “no”, the interests of the Apple community say “yes.”  Apple certainly has no legal obligation to do what’s in the best interests of users, but if they want to differentiate themselves from Microsoft, then perhaps they should.

What it really comes down to, then, is the question of “how closed can Apple (or any other company) become before I am no longer willing to give them my business?”  Or should it even matter?  If I give up Apple, should I also give up Skype, Flash, video drivers, and many other things that restrict my ability to use a product how I see fit?  These are not easy questions to answer, and the answer is different for each person.  For myself, I will wait and let my thoughts on the matter evolve for a while.  Hopefully by the time I’m ready to replace my current Mac Book Pro, I’ll have figured it out.