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21st features
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Salon

A L S O__T O D A Y


Let's Get This Straight
By Scott Rosenberg
Rushing the Starr report to the Net is all about one thing: Delivering the juicy bits




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T A B L E__T A L K

What buzzwords do you love to hate? Vent about "technobabble" and "marketspeak" in the Digital Culture area of Table Talk



 

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R E C E N T L Y

Let's Get This Straight
By Scott Rosenberg
The iMac debate rages on, as Apple's legions weigh in
(09/10/98)

Death and the hard drive
By Moira Muldoon
Data can be a precious link to a lost loved one -- if you save it
(09/09/98)

Inside the new high-tech lock-downs
By Jim Rendon
Prison gadgetry promises to save money and reduce overcrowding -- but at what cost?
(09/08/98)

Internet U.
By Andrew Leonard
A new documentary looks at the benefits and hazards of the Net as global lecture hall
(09/04/98)

The 21st Challenge No. 13: Status gadgets
By Charlie Varon and Jim Rosenau
Devise a new high-tech device -- and win a prize!
(09/04/98)

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Stallman photo

"THE SAINT OF FREE SOFTWARE" SPARKS NEW DEBATES ABOUT THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE OPEN-SOURCE MOVEMENT.

BY ANDREW LEONARD
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Last week, I profiled Richard Stallman, a central figure in the ongoing saga of the free software movement. Within minutes of the publication of the story, "The saint of free software," my e-mailbox began filling up with a provocative outpouring from Stallman's colleagues, friends and enemies.

Assorted free software/open source zealots contributed their own perspectives on Stallman's role in the free software movement. Tim O'Reilly, the president and founder of O'Reilly & Associates -- a computer book publisher criticized by Stallman for publishing "non-free manuals" -- asked for a chance to present his rebuttal. And Eric Raymond, the high-profile open source evangelist, chimed in with a detailed critique that he simultaneously forwarded to Stallman himself -- sparking a vigorous, eloquent e-mail debate.

Numerous correspondents objected to Stallman's attempt to impose the "GNU-Linux" name on the Linux-based operating system. As many readers pointed out, the operating system commonly referred to as Linux includes several elements -- such as a free version of the X-Windows system -- that were not produced by the Stallman-founded Free Software Foundation/GNU Project. To relentlessly insist on one particular terminology, suggested readers, was pointless nit-picking.

"As far as the whole 'GNU-Linux' thing," noted reader Andrew Norris, "the one sure bet out there is that getting hackers to add gratuitous syllables to terms is a losing proposition. When was the last time somebody told you about using 'Microsoft Word for Windows 97 Service Release 1' to edit a document? 'Linux' is the shortest name to adequately describe the OS, therefore that's what hackers use. Anything else sounds like a legalism."

Even worse, suggested reader Nathan Mates, Stallman's insistence on dictating the course of the free software movement contributed to the increasing irrelevance of the GNU project.

"GNU has floundered over the past few years precisely because of Richard Stallman's hyper-controlling mentality," wrote Mates. "The culture of Linux/Apache/etc. development is friendlier to developers: Linus Torvalds loves to work with others, admits his faults and failings, and accepts stuff that's better than his own. Richard Stallman's development philosophy is almost antithetical -- he must control, and so his projects suffer."

But the commentary was by no means all negative. Several readers wrote in to express their own appreciation of Stallman. Chris Hanson, a research scientist at MIT who says he has known Stallman for 20 years, contributed the most telling appraisal.

"Most people that I know are seriously alienated by Richard's politics and by his uncompromising attitude; I'm often uncomfortable around him as well," wrote Hanson. "But he has a knack for getting to the heart of things, and once you understand where he's coming from, the things he does make perfect sense. In fact, it's hard to understand how else they could be done. It's sad that so many people reject him out of hand, often while mouthing some empty boilerplate phrase about how they admire him for his programming skill or something. As if one part of him could be separated from the other."

"I don't always agree with him," added Hanson, "but I always listen carefully to what he has to say. Richard is a genius, a man with a clear and unusual vision, and like others before him, he comes in a quirky and difficult package. Mozart wasn't too well-liked among the cultured people of his day, either; perhaps someday someone will make a movie about RMS, his dry humor, temper tantrums, and beautiful vision of people working together."

N E X T_ P A G E .|. Tim O'Reilly's rebuttal, and Eric Raymond and Richard Stallman duke it out



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PHOTO BY WOUTER VAN OORTMERSSEN




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