Richard Stallman – Saint IGNUcius, Church of Emacs

*I attended Richard Stallman’s talk at ImpactHub Zurich two weeks ago. Yes, he did take off his shoes, and if you can look over a healthy dose of craziness, what he said made somewhat sense.

When Richard Stallman called himself Saint IGNUcius of the Church of Emacs he did so with a smile. He showed off a very fine and subtle sense of humour and seemed to be enjoying every ounce of it. When somebody from the audience asked a provocative question, in a very short time, the Saint was in a furious passion, and went stamping about, and shouting: ‘Shut his mouth’. Literally. *

This is not really my point though. Apart from being very eccentric, Richard Stallman has something important to say.

The software we use on a daily base on our computers, to do our work, should be free. Mind the difference between gratis and free here. Moreover, in answer to that provocative question, if Richard gets his money out of an ATM that’s perfectly ok. Because the ATM is not his and the bank can install the software they want on their machine, for their reasons.

These fine distinctions are important. And they show that what Richard (and GNU) wants is a lot more reasonable and practical than what you might think. Think about all the software we use for our daily work – much of it is in fact free/opensource (think of Chrome, Android OS, the web server that serves this page, or even parts of Mac OS X). And then think about how much headache non-free software has been causing (namely Microsoft software), and how much it has been limiting its users in what they wanted to do.

A trend Richard could not foresee is the Software-as-a-Service revolution. Many applications are being reinvented as cloud services, and the server software is, of course, proprietary. However not even SaaS can invalidate what GNU prescribes.

  1. First of all, the underlying software that runs much of SaaS is mostly free, which cannot be said of proprietary software that runs on personal computers.
  2. Secondly, the trend to move applications from personal computers back onto servers doesn’t mean that those applications cannot be open-source. In fact, open-source SaaS has been a very hot trend for years, just think about the widespread use of opensource Content Management Systems such as WordPress, Typo3, DjangoCMS.
  3. And last but not least, the architecture of modern applications is a lot more open than you might think. Hardly a SaaS provider can do without an open API (Application Program Interface) and many allow third-parties to extend and integrate and these extensions and plugins are open source.

Even if opensource / free software is not the cure to everything it is certainly on the rise and many modern companies such as Google itself often chose to opensource their software!