Why FSF Founder Richard Stallman is Wrong on Steve Jobs

It’s time for free software to find a new voice. Once again, Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman is putting his feet firmly in his mouth. This time, Stallman says that he’s glad Steve Jobs is gone.

It’s no secret that RMS and Steve Jobs held firmly opposed views when it comes to software freedom. I didn’t expect Stallman to hold a vigil at an Apple store for Jobs, or even to say much of anything at all. But his ill-considered response does nothing for the cause of free software, and actually does a lot of damage.

Stallman and the Free Software Foundation, have long expressed a very public dislike for Apple and Jobs. They’ve conducted campaigns against the iPad and Stallman has a history of speaking out about the iPhone and other closed devices. Though I’ve often disagreed with the tone and language of Stallman’s commentary on closed devices, he makes good points about software freedom. But his latest, posthumous, attack on Jobs demonstrates that Stallman has no business being spokesperson of anything.

Update: A couple of folks have asked that it be pointed out that Stallman made these comments on his personal site, rather than on the FSF site. So please do note that. However, I think that the poor taste of these comments undermines Stallman’s credibility as a spokesperson for the FSF even if he wasn’t wearing the FSF hat when these were made.

Here’s Stallman’s post in its entirety:

“Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died.

“As Chicago Mayor Harold Washington said of the corrupt former Mayor Daley, ‘I’m not glad he’s dead, but I’m glad he’s gone.’ Nobody deserves to have to die – not Jobs, not Mr. Bill, not even people guilty of bigger evils than theirs. But we all deserve the end of Jobs’ malign influence on people’s computing.

“Unfortunately, that influence continues despite his absence. We can only hope his successors, as they attempt to carry on his legacy, will be less effective.”

It’s unseemly to wish away those we do not agree with. What Stallman is saying, in essence, is that his ideals of free software can only compete with what users want from computing products when they’re less attractive.

This is, unfortunately, typical of Stallman – and exactly why the self-appointed leader of the free software movement is the last person who should be spokesperson for anything. He manages to offend common decency by celebrating the absence of a man who contributed enormously to the world of computing, and insult millions of Apple users simultaneously. But I see no argument whatsoever here to persuade Jobs’ fans that they should be considering free software. Just a petty expression of relief that a rival is no longer available to compete with Stallman’s cause.

If Stallman had to make a statement emphasizing his dislike of Jobs’ influence, he could still have done so respectfully. Consider this; “I didn’t share Steve Jobs’ vision of computing, and I wish he’d chosen to embrace free software. I’m very sorry that he’s gone and we’ve lost the opportunity to have that conversation. My sympathies are with his family at this time.” There’s no need to pretend that Stallman liked Jobs, but his post is contemptible.

Even if you accept Stallman’s world-views on free software and ethics about software licensing, we shouldn’t be “glad he’s gone.” Jobs’s work has inspired a lot of free software developers over the years, and he and his teams at Apple set a bar for excellence that more developers should aspire to.

It’s unseemly to wish away those we do not agree with. What Stallman is saying, in essence, is that his ideals of free software can only compete with what users want from computing products when they’re less attractive. To me, that says Stallman would be happy to force his ideals on users rather than persuading them that free software actually matters. Or, at least, that he lacks confidence that it’s possible.

For the record, while I admire some of the things that Stallman has achieved, I think he does the cause of free software far more harm than good these days. He may appeal to the converted, but he is absolutely the wrong person to relate to the majority of users.

While I’d love it if Stallman would retire, or at the very least improve his social skills, I hope he lives to be 120. As long as he’s alive, there’s hope he might change. I’d never be glad that he’s gone. And I’m certainly not glad that Steve is.

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