Richard Stallman could be described as the godfather of the Open Source movement, but not to his face. RMS, as he is affectionately known by Open Source afficianados the world over, has for nearly 30 years been campaigning in his own inimitable style for free software ('free' as in free speech). He rejects Open Source as a compromise, but some say he has become overly righteous in his views.
You've been committed to free software since you joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a 17-year-old programmer in the early 70s. What drew you there?
I was part of a 70s sharing community, but I was attracted to MIT because they had a powerful computer. They were looking for people who wanted to improve the system, and as long as you were capable, they were happy to have you. I felt this was the way it should be, and I felt that the alternative was horrible, everybody being divided and restricted so that somebody can make more money.
You and other programmers at the Free Software Foundation have been working for some time on HURD, kernel of the free GNU operating system. How is that work progressing?
The HURD basically runs; now it needs to be made robust, and some parts need to be optimised. Also, the features that we envisioned would take advantage of its power have to be implemented.
How does GNU relate to Open Source software like Linux?
Many people talk about GNU as if it were the same as Linux. Linux is a kernel of GNU developed by Linus Torvalds, but although Linux is very important, it is just one of several essential parts of GNU. At the moment, one of the dangers is drifting away from the goal. Torvalds proposes world domination, by which he jocularly means the popularity of a particular collection of software. In truth, this happens to be more or less the GNU operating system that we set out to develop 15 years ago. But the ironic thing is while Linux developers are focusing on our job, it is just really a means to a more important end, which is to have freedom and a community. To achieve this, you've got to reject the software that forbids you to have those things. The goal of making one particular collection of free software more popular by combining it with non-free software, which is what they do, is missing the point.
How do you feel when systems like Linux are taken up for business use?
In principle, I think it's good to make the combined GNU/Linux system useful for business. Free software should be for everyone, and that includes business people.
How do you feel about Open Source firms making millions through public offerings?
I wish these companies were making the same millions without distributing any non-free, user-subjugating software.
At the moment, there are many gaps in what commercial software does. How can free software fill those gaps?
Please don't think of 'free' and 'commercial' as alternatives. They deal with different issues. A program can be commercial, academic, or avocational; it can be free or proprietary. There is commercial free software, and there is non-commercial, non-free software. As far as we're concerned, a non-free program is a gap. You can only use it by giving up your freedom, and that we will not do. Our aim is to make free software do every useful job.
What are your views on the Microsoft trial results so far?
Microsoft is just one of many companies that develop non-free software. Instead of letting one specific company hold our attention, we should focus on the major issue: whether or not software respects our freedom.
Do you get downhearted?
No, because we have done a lot more than a lot of people ever thought we would. People tend to dismiss idealism as impractical, which is strange, because in the long term, idealism is the most practical course of all.
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