on 4 June 2002
Free as in Freedom is a generally sympathetic but far from hagiographic biography of Richard Stallman, inspiration of the free software movement. While much of the material in it will be familiar to anyone actively involved with free software, there are, as Williams claims, "facts and quotes in here that one won't find in any Slashdot story or Google search". It is also an entertaining and accessible study, which I finished within a day of my review copy arriving.
Williams begins with the famous jamming printer and Stallman's encounter with a non-disclosure agreement that prevented him writing reporting software for it. He then jumps forwards to a speech given by Stallman in 2001, responding to attacks by Microsoft on the GNU GPL. Having used these episodes to introduce Stallman and explain the basic idea of free software, the rest of the work continues in a similar vein, mixing historical chapters with ones describing Williams' own meetings with Stallman.
Chapter three describes Stallman's childhood as a prodigy; chapter four his experiences at Harvard and MIT; chapter six the MIT AI Lab and the Emacs "commune"; chapter seven the death of the MIT hacker community and the first announcement of the GNU Project; chapter nine the GNU GPL; chapter ten the appearance of Linux and debates over GNU/Linux; and chapter eleven the coining of the term "open source" and the arguments over that. These contain quotes by everyone from Stallman's mother to the leading lights of free software, as well as plenty by Stallman himself. The narrative never strays too far from its subject, but becomes inextricably interwoven with the broader history and politics of free software and sometimes digresses to cover key figures and events with which Stallman wasn't directly involved.
Williams' first-hand accounts help give Stallman a human face: chapter five recounts a meeting in 1999 LinuxWorld, chapter eight a meeting in Hawaii, and chapter twelve a frustrating car trip with Stallman at the wheel. These give a feel for Stallman's personality and presence, his forthrightness and emotional intensity, his steadfastness and his abrasiveness, and his ability to unsettle. Chapter thirteen attempts to predict Stallman's status "in 100 years", quoting opinions from from Eben Moglen, John Gilmore, Eric Raymond, and Lawrence Lessig; it also suggests that Stallman's personality may be inseparable from his achievements.
Although I had already been involved with free software advocacy for some time, my first encounter with Richard Stallman came when he turned up to a rehearsal of my gamelan group; afterwards I tried without much success to explain to my fellow musicians why the strange bearded man they'd just met was so important. I don't think Free as in Freedom would help much with that: it jumps around too much and assumes too much general knowledge of the computer industry to be a good introduction for complete outsiders. Those already interested in the history and politics of free software and hacker culture, however, should relish it...
on 26 February 2003
Its a very imformative, easy to read, and often amusing look at the life of this clever and driven hacker who's work has led to the increasing acceptance and quality of free software today. Many may not agree with all his ideas, but few doubt his genius. Recommended for both those with a good understanding of free software, and those with little prior knowledge. Great stuff!
on 21 March 2005
The book contains a brief biography (so far) and an overview of the beliefs of Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation. It contains interesting tidbits and provides an outsider's view on this quirky but undoubtedly highly influential individual. If you are interested in learning more about the person who kick started the free software phenomenon, which is
now transforming the computing world, you should get this book. If you are more interested in the man's ideas, there are other books out there, most notably "Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman".
The book is also available free online under the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL), so you can download it at no cost if you so wish.
I basically bought this book looking for information about where Linux came from, what I recieved was an education about what free open standard software development is all about and why its so important to one man. I got a good understanding about why Richard Stallman is such a driven man. The book hardly mentions Linux but concentrates primarily on what drives Stallman to keep going, and live the software developers equivalent of a rock star's life. Constantly travelling, preaching to small audiences of converts, never having time to think about lifes other problems, never time to settle. It also seems to paint a picture of a man, who although so closely tied into technology, doesn't seem to want to rely on it, to get his message through to his audience, often travelling thousands of miles just to talk to 200 people in a school gym. You also get a sense of the shear size of the struggle he his facing in his efforts, trying to make people aware that there are alternatives, its not Stallmans mission to detail them, but to make sure you know they are there. Whenever I now see Stallman's name mentioned in media articles, I now feel I have a better idea about why his will and passion sometimes blind him to peoples feelings. If you have any interest in the free software movement, positive or negative, you should obtain this book.