When news broke of Steve Jobs’s death, their was an outpouring of sadness from both those who knew the man and those of us who knew only the products his farsighted perfectionism had helped to mold. Amidst the mourning over a technology pioneer and visionary, there was a contrary opinion from another technology pioneer and visionary known for his nearly 30 year long campaign against proprietary software. Richard Stallman was glad Jobs would not be able to create any more “jails” to lock people in.
To understand the statement, one needs to understand the man behind it. In 1983, Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation on the basis that software should be free for people to use and share. In the era when proprietary software – the sort that comes with lengthy legal agreements that prohibit you from sharing the software, editing the software’s code and so on – was just coming into its own, the FSF promised to keep the early spirit of collaborative innovation around.
Stallman came to hold this idea of freely sharable and editable software as a key ethical tenet and has been a tireless crusader for freeing information. When I have had the privilege to interview Stallman, one thing has always been clear: he took his values serious and is utterly consistent with them. It is hard to criticize that spirit – after all, much of what we enjoy about the Internet today comes from the software his organization created or helped to make accessible.
In Stallman’s ethical system, Apple is primarily evil, its design philosophy concerning the Mac and iOS little but a philosophy for how to imprison people in fruity holding cells. The problem is that Stallman’s position is one that demonstrates not only what is right in the Free Software world, but also exactly what is wrong with it.
In fixating on purity in software licensing, he risks becoming increasingly irrelevant to the true challenges to freedom in the present age. Today software is often a mere window to the Internet, bringing the real concern into sharp relief: not software freedom, but information freedom.
Steve Jobs’s Apple has done more in the last five years to make information freely accessible than the entire Free Software and Open Source community has in ten.
When the iPhone launched in 2007, suddenly normal, non-technically inclined people could enjoy e-mail, calendaring and, most importantly, full fledged web browsing on a mobile device that did not require a significant learning curve. And, because Apple recognized the problems Flash caused on the mobile front and steadfastly refused to support it, the company was able to use its considerable clout to push forward the open HTML5 standard on a web that was becoming increasingly dependent on Flash (and hence proprietary and buggy software).
Keeping information freely accessible is more than merely having Free Software tools to access it – or even having it accessible via open standards. If people cannot understand how to access the information, it might as well be locked away somewhere. Making computers easier to use is directly tied to the freedom of information.
Though the Free Software debates may be philosophically interesting, they are esoteric and generally irrelevant to peoples’ everyday lives. On the other hand, having a phone with a remarkably smart user interface that can access the “whole web” and not just mobile web sites is very relevant to everyday people.
Jobs’s visionary drive to create products that made difficult jobs simple, taking tasks previously reserved for the technologically elite and democratizing them via intuitive interfaces should be seen as a manner of championing freedom.
Take the iPod: while many pre-iPod music players insisted users needed to “mount” the player as a USB drive and manually drag music onto the drive from a folder – a task that can seem daunting to the novice user – Apple created a system where one simply plugs the music player in and everything else happens automatically. No learning curve and no continued maintenance of trying to keep the computer and music player in sync.
(Once Apple used the simplicity of the iPod to revitalize itself, as in the case with HTML5, Apple used its momentum to first advocate more consumer friendly forms of DRM and, eventually, DRM-free music.)
I know people who use iPhones regularly who would never have picked up a Palm Treo or BlackBerry, and much less utilized those phones to download apps, surf the web and listen to music. (And forget about the various attempts at a Free Software-based phone – those interfaces can be maddening even for the technologically inclined.)
The one shining Free Software answer to this challenge – Android – draws far more of its interface from imitation of Apple’s iOS than from any pre-iPhone design concept and, for that matter, is only quasi-Free, given Google’s ingenious maneuvers to reap Free and Open Source praise while still controlling who gets the relevant code and when.
The key is the first point. If one looks at a pre-iPhone demo of Android, it looks like a BlackBerry clone. Only post-iPhone does it take its touch friendly, application store driven face that people now know and love. And, lacking vision, it still remains harder to use and has only rarely has offered an easier way to do common tasks than iOS does.
The Linux desktop is even worse, a mishmash of Windows and Mac OS X interface concepts without a cohesive vision or strong desire to truly democratize information access by creating tools that simply tasks for non-technical users. Ubuntu has come closest to doing that, but is still harder to use than OS X and draws virtually all of its ease-of-use improvements over standard Linux from Mac OS X.
As Stallman, and even those far more moderate, lament how Jobs’s legacy is one of binding people under some tyrannical control, they miss the bigger, more important picture. Take away Apple, and Free Software users would have an even harder time viewing the whole web. Take away Apple, and the user interface improvements that have made computers significantly easier to use and allowed people to do sophisticated tasks simply would evaporate.
Sometimes the very worst sort of jail is the one that is wrapped in the guise of freedom few can take advantage of.
Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business.