Richard Stallman On Cloud Computing: 'Stupidity'

The Sept. 29 edition of <i>The Guardian</i> sports an <a href="">interview</a> with Richard Stallman -- he of <a href="">GNU</a> and the <a href="">Free Software Foundation</a> -- in which he fulminates long and loud against cloud computing.&nbsp; Break out the asbestos suits before reading. Some of his words: "It's stupidity. It's worse than stupidity: it's a marketing hype cam

Serdar Yegulalp, Contributor

October 1, 2008

3 Min Read

The Sept. 29 edition of The Guardian sports an interview with Richard Stallman -- he of GNU and the Free Software Foundation -- in which he fulminates long and loud against cloud computing.  Break out the asbestos suits before reading. Some of his words: "It's stupidity. It's worse than stupidity: it's a marketing hype campaign."

So what's his objection? Web applications, of which cloud computing is a part of the same family, put control over your apps and your data into the hands of total strangers. As he sees it, Gmail is every bit as proprietary, if not more so, than Microsoft Outlook.

From the interview:

"One reason you should not use Web applications to do your computing is that you lose control," he said. "It's just as bad as using a proprietary program. Do your own computing on your own computer with your copy of a freedom-respecting program. If you use a proprietary program or somebody else's Web server, you're defenceless. You're putty in the hands of whoever developed that software."

So, OK. You give your data to someone else, it's not really your data anymore. This has not been news since, say, the invention of the telephone, or even earlier than that. The problem with Stallman's message, at least as shown in this interview, is that he substitutes venom and absolutism for any kind of nuance. Example: If you do anything Web-related, it is next to impossible to not use "someone else's Web server", as he put it -- unless he means "Web server running apps you use as a substitute for a freedom-respecting program". It's hard to tell if it's the Guardian who might have mangled his words, or if Stallman was simply so busy being vitrolic that he conflated things.

Thing is, his biggest reasons for harshing on cloud computing is, from what I can tell, not all that different from some of my own trepidations. I've written before -- in my discussion of Google Chrome -- that the rush to shove every application in the world into Web browsers is a lousy idea. It can be done, to a fair degree, but whether we should do it is another story. That said, if Google (or Mozilla, or, heck, even Microsoft) can show me that it can be done without wrecking everything, including Web standards, I'll be the first to boil and eat my shoe, Werner Herzog-style. (See 2nd graf in link.)

But it's hard to take Stallman's shotgun-spray criticisms seriously, especially when he chalks up the fascination with cloud computing to mere marketing hype. What about the possibility (however remote) that it offers people something they simply didn't have before? Not even mentioned. Larry Ellison of Oracle was no less vehement about it being hype:

"The computer industry is the only industry that is more fashion-driven than women's fashion. Maybe I'm an idiot, but I have no idea what anyone is talking about. What is it? It's complete gibberish. It's insane. When is this idiocy going to stop?"

There are no end of questions about whether or not cloud computing / Web apps are jacks for all trades. My guess is: no, they're not, and anyone with an atom of sense still throbbing in their heads knows this.

Stallman gave us the very idea of free (as in unencumbered) software, and if it weren't for him I wouldn't be sitting here writing about this. But If he's taking the strength of industry buzzwords on face value, then he's even more of a trend-slave than the very people he claims to be criticizing.

[Addendum:The second quote was from Larry Ellison, not Richard Stallman. The transitional sentence where I had this spelled out somehow got eaten when punching things into the CMS. My apologies for the confusion.]

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Serdar Yegulalp


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