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Stallman: Jobs exerted 'malign influence' on computing

Misfiring bearded firebrand should stick to software

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Analysis Veteran free software firebrand Richard Stallman has upset the apple cart by speaking out against the international canonisation of Steve Jobs

Citing 1980s Chicago Mayor Harold Washington talking about a one-time rival, GPL licence author Richard Stallman reckons while he's not glad Jobs is dead, he is glad Jobs is gone.

According to Stallman, Jobs made computers into prisons that cut people off from their freedom. You can read the full quote here, or below:

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.

The reaction to Stallman has been to accuse him of bad taste. Others have denied they are prisoners of Apple.

Libertarian and Cathedral and the Bazaar author Eric Raymond has stepped in to defend his open-source colleague and friend, saying that his statement was not personal, but was simply criticising "walled gardens".

Raymond wrote:

Jobs' success at hypnotizing millions of people into a perverse love for the walled garden is more dangerous to freedom in the long term than [Microsoft co-founder] Bill Gates's efficient but brutal and unattractive corporatism. People feared and respected Microsoft, but they love and worship Apple - and that is precisely the problem, precisely the reason Jobs may in the end have done more harm than good.

Open source has had a complicated relationship with Jobs and Apple. Thanks to Microsoft's stumble on Windows Vista, Mac has surged as a developer platform.

The free software movement cannot seem to make its mind up on whether Google's Android is blessing or a curse: whether it is open, or closed, whether Google is a hero or pariah. Even though Google has stopped releasing Android code, the movement's figureheads – Stallman included – seem willing to grant Google a pass because Android is closer to success than any of the ideologically purer open-source mobile platforms have ever been or will ever become. In September, Stallman reckoned Android respected developers' freedom more than iOS.

Linux desktops, meanwhile have been refining themselves to look more like OS X in recent years. Ubuntu 10.04 LTS in April 2010 was a Mactastic experience: windows and icons on the interface looking more like Mac and the introduction of web services that morphed into a music store. Canonical hoped to tempt Windows wavers to go Linux instead of Mac. It was a course charted by Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttlworth in 2008.

It is easy to object to Stallman's comments and equally easy to accuse Raymond of rambling in his separate post. Both are also notoriously outspoken, while and Apple and the closed-code base and culture of iOS are easy meat for the live-free-or-die-coding Stallman.

But it's also worth noting that very things Jobs has been canonised for creating – the things people rushed last week to say had changed people's lives – stand accused of killing the open web.

Web daddy Tim Berners-Lee a year ago singled out Jobs' iTunes for its use of proprietary technologies and said that its lack of browser access was killing the web's universality.

Foreshadowing Stallman and Raymond, Berners-Lee noted that iTunes creates walled gardens of information. iTunes doesn't use an open standard for its web connection: it uses Apple's proprietary "itunes:" rather than the W3C's "http:". This stops you linking to songs in iTunes. This extends to apps, such as those from the App Store, with magazines and software also being sold through the App Store. They are not open to being run in a browser, to being bookmarked, emailed, or linked to. Without external access, users of these online services must go through Apple's own software, which is tied to its own hardware – the iPhone and iPad.

Apple today claims 200 million iTunes accounts.

iTunes has had a corrosive effect: launched January 2001, iTunes paved the way for others – Facebook and LinkedIn to name just two – which have also singled out by Berners-Lee for killing the web he created.

As universality and openness die with the rise of these walled gardens, so the companies building them are left in control of huge swathes of the web.

Berners-Lee summed up the price we pay for the convenience that Jobs gave us through the iPhone and iPad: "For all the store's wonderful features, its evolution is limited to what one company thinks up."

While it is one thing for open sourcers to rue Jobs' impact on computing and the web, though, open source hasn't done much to mobilise against Jobs.

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