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Why open source needs Simon Cowell

With apologies for the sensationalist headline, Simon Brew wonders how to get a realistic debate going in the modern world…

Noel Gallagher, of all people, is a fan of Simon Cowell. Not many of us would have seen that coming, but it’s a topic that’s apparently come up in a few interviews the former Oasis guitarist has given over the past year. The one that interested me, though, was when Gallagher told Shortlist magazine that “if the music business was full of people like him, it would be a better place because he’s real”. Richard Stallman, then.

The tragic, horrifically early death of Steve Jobs last year led to a media torrent, with commenters and journalists tumbling over themselves to get across what they had to say. At their most extreme, it came across as if Steve Jobs himself had invented the computer, and come around to each of our houses to sort out our media collections in person.

The more measured were more realistic. Jobs was a visionary. His timing, eventually, was superb. His eye for user interface and focus was inspired (even if he stood on the shoulders of others). And the computing industry will, and does, feel his loss.

But he had his faults. I’ve no urge to dredge through them here, as the media clamour inevitably distorted things good and bad. I’d just say that 56 is no age to die, whether head of a major company or a lonely hack sat in front of an ageing computer.

The Free Software Foundation’s Richard Stallman, though, had a point in his widely reported piece about the influence Jobs had on the world of computing, for which he attracted a lot of criticism. And I fear it got lost.

The delivery of his message could have been better timed, perhaps, and he’s not a man you’d necessarily want on a customer service support line. But his argument, in a follow-up post to his original words that led to such scorn being poured on him, read:
“Jobs saw how to make these computers stylish and smooth. That would normally be positive, but not in this case, since it has the paradoxical effect of making their controlling nature seem acceptable.

“Jobs’s death inspired a flood of articles lauding him for these very devices. That further increases their potential for harm, which is why now more than ever we must focus attention on it. We must not let secondary considerations about Apple or Jobs distract us from this threat until we have thwarted it.”

The threat that Stallman describes is a real one (whether you agree with his position on it or not), and the lack of focused consideration of the position of Apple in the computing world is troubling. After all, for the past decade or so, it’s got away with a lot, primarily because it wasn’t Microsoft, and because when it comes to branding, Apple has done brilliant work.

But how do we challenge what it’s done to impinge on the freedom of software? How can we possibly have a proper, reasoned and feasible debate, free of emotion and hard on facts? It might be my melancholic reading of the world, but I just don’t see that’s possible. I’m not sure it’s going to be possible for some time, either. I don’t see much thirst for it at all.

Stallman attracted criticism, and lots of it, for his words. And, truth be told, I’m wary of the response even these words will get. How can I be sure that what I’m writing won’t be construed as an attack on a man who left the world too soon? I know that’s not what I’m writing, and I’ve deliberately held back an extra month or two to be on the safe side. But am I part of the problem there? Honestly, I’ve no idea.

Right now, it seems safer for your online sanity to praise Simon Cowell than it is to debate the merits of free software. I’d love to be proved wrong…