May 7, 2002

de Icaza and RMS: Opposite ends of the bridge, still supporting the same community

- by Tina Gasperson -
It all boils down to these two extremes: RMS wants software freedom regardless
of user satisfaction, and Miguel de Icaza wants user
satisfaction regardless of whether the principles of the
GPL are violated. Everyone else in the GNOME project is somewhere in between, spanning the gap.
From a recent thread on the GNOME Foundation mailing list:

Gergo (referencing his signature file which quotes a GUADEC 2001 RMS
speech thusly 'We are not here to give users what they want.'): "No, Richard,
although I know your opinion on user relations (see my .sig...), we (as the
GNOME project) _are_ here to give something to _users_, and to give them what
they want."

RMS: "I am glad my words have not been forgotten.
We are not here to give users what they want.
We are here to spread freedom.

"Some users want freedom. If we succeed at all, we will give
those users what they want.

"We may also improve software in other ways, and that may
give some other users what they want - -for instance, powerful
or convenient software. Satisfying those wants is a good
thing, all else being equal, but we need to remember that
freedom is the primary goal. Otherwise the danger is that
we will set aside freedom in order to satisfy various lesser
wants that various users have.

"We need to teach the users to value freedom more, not learn
from them to value it less."

Miguel de Icaza: "Richard, you might be here to spread software freedom as many of us here
are.

"But Gnome is not an exclusive project where only those that care about
spreading software freedom are welcomed. We welcome anyone who is
willing to release their code under a free software/open source license,
for whatever motives they might have.

"Some people are contributing to Gnome, because they care about freedom;
some others are related because they liked the Gimp and liked to do
pretty graphics; some others wanted to contribute because Gnome was a
fertile ground for experimentation; some others wanted to contribute
because they loved Unix and hated the world of MS-DOS and Windows, but
could be using Solaris or any other proprietary Unix just as well as
they are using GNU/Linux; some others are interested in exploring
usability issues; some others want Gnome to power their proprietary
systems, and that is fine with us.

"You might be here to spread freedom, but Gnome, the Gnome Foundation,
and its members might have goals which are not aligned with yours.

"You are free to participate in the discussion, but you are mistaken if
you believe that you are speaking for Gnome or for all of us. I know
you are not speaking for me and for none of the code I have written.

"I have been working to give users what they want, and a lot of us want
to see free software succeed, and to achieve that goal, and to convince
more people to use our software, and hence to grow our developer base,
we will listen to them, and we will make adjustments to our code, to our
documentation, to our licenses and in the ways we interact with people."

A bit of harshness on both ends -- but it's not really as mean as it sounds.
Everyone familiar with GNU and Linux and Free Software and Open Source knows
Stallman's dogged perseverance with the message of software libre. And
if you've been listening lately, you know de Icaza, co-founder of Ximian, is
focused on making a profit with his company's version of GNOME and related
products, like Connector, a proprietary tool that makes it possible for Linux
users to connect to Microsoft Exchange 2000 servers and take advantage of
groupware features.

You can't blame either man. Stallman's deathgrip on GPL concepts and his
"inability to compromise" are vital to the survival of Free Software and its
cousin, Open Source, if you believe the likes of Eben Moglen, Eric Raymond, and Tim Berners-Lee. de
Icaza's drive to innovate and create a way for a business -- that gives away most
of its software -- to make money is at least understandable and at best shows him
as one of the frontrunners in a quest that only the bravest or most foolhardy
seek to undertake these days: a profitable Open Source business model.

Perhaps these frank exchanges serve as an uncomfortable reminder to some of the history of GNOME, a project that was started in 1997 by de Icaza as a Free Software alternative to the KDE desktop, which then used some unfree code. Back then de Icaza had a big vision for GNOME, as quoted in the March 1999 Edupage newsletter: "[de Icaza] predicts that Gnome and
Linux will attract a strong international backing, and says that the Mexican
government is planning to distribute a million copies to schools."

In that same issue, Stallman gushed about GNOME.
"Fifteen years ago they said this was impossible. They said this was too large a task."

In a history of GNOME, written by de Icaza and reviewed by several people including Stallman, the divergence appears less obvious. One of the purposes of GNOME, according to the document, was "providing user friendly tools." And to draw the opposition even closer together, de Icaza repeatedly makes use of the idealistic term "free software" in this writing -- although the Ximian.com site boasts of its Open Source roots and doesn't mention Free Software, even calling the GNOME project a "breakthrough open source community effort," phraseology sure to tweak a few nerve endings in RMS.

Imagine this, though: RMS and de Icaza may look to be on opposite sides; and they may not be happy with one another -- but picture their
positions as two supporting ends of a bridge, and it becomes clear they're
working together to support free software and profitable Open Source
development. Both are vital. Take either one out and the bridge falls down.

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