Posted on Tue 06 May 2008 by alex in geek

I saw rms last week. I've always had a lot of respect for the guy but I think the talk last week has elevated him to the level of one of my technology heroes.

I got to the Renolds building and it took some poking around trying to find a door that wasn't locked. After I gained entry I went up to the supposed meeting room only to find it empty. It seemed the organisers had seen sense and moved the talk to one of the main lecture halls. It was a good job to because after taking my seat the hall filled up to standing room only.

rms started his talk discussing the four essential freedoms and the reasons for them. One of the things I admire about rms is his consistency (which is often confused with obstinacy) and time and again he would refer to the four freedoms when answering questions from the audience. He is quite clear that software that isn't free (as in speech) is a tool for subjugation of the user rather than empowering them. During the description of why users should prefer to run free software he mentioned a number of examples of programs that act against their "owners" interests, Windows being a leading example of such behaviour.

He followed up with a history of the GNU project and how it went from an idea to fully free system in the space of nice years. Ironically while the first combination of GNU/Linux was a fully free system distributions have been on the slow slide away from freedom since. The issue of convenience isn't an concern for rms, he applies his philosophy regardless of any inconvenience it puts him at, as can be witnessed by his removal of wireless networking from his new laptop. This led to a discussion about the proper description of systems as GNU/Linux systems which has been the source of many a on-line flame war. I have to say the opportunity to hear him explain his position in considered logical steps without the staccato effect of on-line "debate" was refreshing. The issue of credit is secondary to the message of the GNU project and letting people know why they can install a free operating systems on their systems. There is a fundamental difference between the philosophies of the Free Software Movement and the Open Source movement even if a lot of the code is the same.

He touched on a number of other topics including why he doesn't care about the software installed on his microwave (yet) and is only just starting to care about what software runs on a mobile phone (which he doesn't own anyway). Someone else asked the question I was planning to about if you could write free software for a "cloud" service to which his answer was a simple (paraphrased) "yes, but why would you trust the server". The more interesting digression covered why education should only be using Free Software.

Apart from the already discussed issues of freedom it simply makes no sense to run closed software in an educational environment. If a pupil has questions about how things work a teacher needs to be able to point the pupil at the actual source code, something that at that age they are likely to read and pull apart and play with. Certainly if I get to the stage of having kids they will be given machines running free software even if they don't show any interest in whats going on under the hood.

One thing rms was careful to do was be precise in his answers which was useful when people kept asking the same question in subtly different ways. He also wasn't keen to over-stretch the analogy to other areas (embedded devices and bio-tech being two areas). Overall the talk was very interesting even if I was already fairly familiar with the subject matter. rms is an engaging speaker who comes across very differently from the impression I had formed of him based on the various bios and flame wars I'd read on the 'net. It was certainly a very worthwhile evening.