Stallman: Jobs exerted 'malign influence' on computing
Misfiring bearded firebrand should stick to software
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".
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.
No fightback from the open-source community
When some have articulated an answer predicted on Linux and open-source, they've been pulled down. Canonical and Shuttleworth were shot down when they tried to rally the open-source community against closed-source desktops such OS X. Canonical and Shuttleworth were then taken to task for appearing to be trying to make money off its back, something Google, Cisco Systems, IBM and many other big names are already doing.
Ubuntu's music service, meanwhile, has not made a dent on iTunes while efforts to build a community of open-source apps are still barely off the drawing board.
Today, Linux and open source in the cloud are talked about at an infrastructure level, through projects like OpenStack. We have yet to see what tie-ins companies delivering OpenStack-based clouds will throw up to hold on to their customers. It is also looking like OpenStack services will target business and enterprise customers, not the consumer in hock to Apple.
Jobs was no saint, he wasn't an artist in the romantic sense and it's arguable whether he was an idealist. Jobs – from "hippie" San Francisco, California – was the chief executive of a listed company. And like the chief of any other such company, he used the products his company produced plus a healthy does of hardball to give consumers what he thought they wanted, to create new markets, and to generate the kinds of profits that made his relatively small operation at times the most valuable company in American capitalism.
His business model was built on closed hardware and software, and when Jobs championed the open web, he did so in a way that reinforced Apple's control over its share of the internet – as was done during Jobs' boosting of HTML5 over Adobe's Flash.
The media has created the myth of the saintly genius and that has helped obscure the kinds of details people in technology like to dissect. Some now think Jobs created the tablet, but it was Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates in November 2002 who talked of a new era of mobile computing with the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition.
Gates slipped because his company targeted the enterprise instead of the consumer. Microsoft tried to protect its established Windows PC business, and his company ceded control over the hardware design and manufacture to the unimaginative and conservative OEMs, which also had markets to protect.
In summing up Jobs, few have done it better or more succinctly than DB Grady's "In Praise of Bad Steve".
"There are a lot of geniuses in the world, and a lot of aesthetes. But that's not enough. Sometimes it takes Bad Steve to bring products to market. Real artists ship," Grady wrote.
Stallman's comments are raw and the timing off, but like it or not, Bad Steve changed the web to such an extent that his company is now squatting on a large and important section of the planet's virtual space. This is helping Apple's shareholders now and will pay off long into the future, now Apple has placed people's data behind a closed wall in a way it can monetise.
The open-source movement can only challenge this by coming up with compelling ideas that count rather than polemics. ®