Friday, March 17, 2006

The Stallman Experience

Richard StallmanIt's not often that members of technocrati converge in Belfast for a conference on Free and Open Source Software. Even less common for the event to be free, include free refreshments and lunch, and operate a self-registration scheme - based on a wiki!

Attendees at the FOSS Means Business event fell into two categories:

  1. Those with long beards, long hair and techie-sloganed T-shirts, hard core programmers who are paid-up members and evangelists of the free/open source movement. (Women in this camp - and there were a good number in attendance - had the long hair, but lacked the long beards!) They were all eager and positively excited to listen to their bearded and Rapunzel-like hero - Stallman.
  2. The other half of the audience were more sober and less worshipful. They came from universities and IT departments/companies across Ireland. Suits & ties, smart casual, but no T-shirts.
Outside view of SpiresInside main hall of SpiresThe main hall at Spires Conference Centre is resplendent with its stone columns, organ pipes and stained glass windows. It's better known to some as the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and site of the annual General Assembly week in June, bringing together 1,300 ministers and delegates from across Ireland for their annual conference.

A suitable venue to sit at the feet of visionaries and listen to their tales and wisdom.

So what did we learn from Richard Stallman?
  • He went through his four software freedoms, numbered 0 to 3 - oh, and the "free" in free software refers to freedom rather than cost.
  • He'd some interesting points about sharing being at the heart of community.
  • He reminded us that he started the GNU project back in 1984 - unbelievably over 20 years ago - though he missed out some of the interesting history about the early rivalries in his MIT lab.
  • He dealt with the issue of why it should be called GNU/Linux or GNU+Linux, but certainly not just Linux on its own.
  • And he reaffirmed why he doesn't warm to Linus Torvalds' relaxed opinions on free/open source software - sounded like he feels Linus is too liberal and leading us down a slippery slope!
  • And he ended by donning his gown and disc-hat to become St IGNUcius, a Saint in the Church of Emacs - which whipped one half of the audience up to a frenzy, and left the rest looking bemused.

Stallman celebrated his 53rd birthday at Friday's conference - pity no one was enthusiastic enough to start a rendition of Happy Birthday.

Disappointingly, I heard little that wouldn't have jumped off pages of the GNU or Free Software Foundation (FSF) websites. Stallman's ego is a little too large on stage, and his insight doesn't quite line up with today's business realities and direction - perhaps he's spent too long directing GNU and FSF to keep up with the industry? He half-told a story of how on arriving at the airport in Belfast he picked a fight with airport security over something trivial - hardly surprising given his extremist views of software! Even more disappointing, I missed most of the rest of the other speakers.

Google were there giving out colourful pens and light-up badges. Pity that Google didn't send Vint Cerf up instead - he spoke recently at Google's European HQ in Dublin. As one of the "fathers of the internet" (he defined the IP protocol), his ideas and experiences would be well worth a listen.

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UPDATE 30 March 2006 - a review of the full conference has been published in the Linux Journal by Paul Barry of the Institute of Technology in Carlow, Ireland.

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