GNU Founder: Cloud Computing is “Worse than Stupidity”

GNU and Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman has some strong thoughts about the idea that some or all software should transition to the cloud, an idea that is backed by many of today’s software and computing giants including Google, Microsoft, Adobe, Amazon, and Apple. “It’s stupidity. It’s worse than stupidity: it’s a marketing hype campaign,” Stallman told the Guardian newspaper.

Why does Stallman feel so strongly about cloud computing? It’s kind of hard to tell, but somewhere in his tirade is a cogent point out loss of consumer control when everything transitions to the cloud.

One reason you should not use web applications to do your computing is that you lose control. 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 defenseless. You’re putty in the hands of whoever developed that software. — Richard Stallman

The reaction to Stallman’s rant on the blogosphere has been very mixed. More than one commenter on Hacker News has compared him to Don Quixote. But Stallman has something of a valid point, if expressed with perhaps more than a bit of hyperbole.

Web applications do raise some inherent privacy concerns, as well as concerns about who actually owns the application you’re using and what happens to your data when you put it into the app. From the mainstream perspective, this has never been embodied for me better than in a conversation I had a few months ago with my girlfriend about Google Docs. At the time, I printed the conversation (paraphrased and heavily edited to remove the bits where I had to explain how various aspects of web applications work) in a post on ReadWriteWeb arguing the necessity for web apps on the desktop. That conversation is relevant here, too, though.

Her: “So where are my documents stored?”
Me: “On Google’s servers.”
Her: “And I don’t actually own the software?”
Me: “No, you just sort of rent it.”
Her: “So if Google goes down, or decides to stop making Docs, they take my software and documents with it?”
Me: “Theoretically that could happen, yeah.”
Her: “And if there’s a security breach my documents are there for the taking?”
Me: “Technically, yes.”
Her: “That’s kinda creepy…. I don’t think I like that.”

I think her view is a fairly common one expressed by mainstream users. Rightly or wrongly, the idea that your documents (or photos, or videos, or whatever) and personal data are off somewhere on some server interacting with software that you have no control over, in an environment that you have no control over is a scary one. It will make cloud applications a tough sell for the mainstream.

That’s why some companies are betting on the client plus the cloud as the future computing model. That might alleviate concerns users have about being locked into a single system, especially when combined with principles of data portability.

Of course, Stallman’s rant went a bit over the top. Cloud computing is clearly not stupidity. The term may have been co-opted for marketing purposes and twisted over the past few years, but the general concept is sound and has promise.

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  • nedlud

    And when you put your money in the bank, if the bank goes out of business, you lose your money (subject to some kind of government insurance).

    If you mortgage your house, you no longer own it. Default on your payments and see what happens to “your” house.

    Why can’t people keep things in perspective?

  • http://mingz-online.com mingz

    I agree with nedlud. One’s data are safer when stored in web servers. All major web server providers have at least two backup, and when they find one backup is broken, they immediately make a new backup. The chance of losing data in this case is less than 1/1,000,000. What if one store data in her own computers? The disk may be stolen, broken, or spoofed. The data are more vulnerable to loss.
    Also note that cloud computing is for some tasks that are too resource-intensive for personal computers. I have a Amazon web server which is available in 99.9% time, and capable of accommodating thousands of clicks per second. Can anyone achieve that with desktop and the stupid ISPs? Also, cloud computing provides important resources for scientific computation. An example is medicine/drug research. Without cloud computing half of drugs will cost twice as much time to develop!

  • http://www.mockriot.com/ Josh Catone

    I think it’s probably important to note that Stallman appeared to be ranting against software as a service, more than the general concept of cloud computing (using commodity hardware in parallel to complete resource intensive computing tasks). It would be hard to find someone who would argue against projects like Folding@Home — at least, I hope it would be!

    Though that does also speak to his point about the perversion of the term “cloud computing.” It’s hard to know what anyone is really referring to these days when they use it.

  • nedlud

    Good point

  • http://www.dangrossman.info Dan Grossman

    Whether his point has validity or not, the man is a little insane. I’ve seen him give speeches in person. He demands a bottle of a specific soda be available to him, that the stage be a certain setup. He comes out in bare feet looking like an oversized troll of some sort, and pulls a wooden gun at someone in the audience pulled from his pocket. That’s one of his “props”. He then explains he’s holding you up with his patent portfolio and it’s too late for the US, it’s time to move to another country…

  • http://www.escasoaporte.cl alvaro

    Someone please do Stallman a favor and kindly stick a shoe in his mouth. This guy likes to talk about freedom a lot; so, do we have the freedom to choose whatever we want (even propietary) and not being treated as stupids by him and his cohorts every time?

  • Chekke

    I respect Stallman, I’m fan of him but this one it’s nuts really. If you don’t like Gmail Service move to Yahoo service and that’s all, Where is the lock?. The user have the freedom to choose whatever service he likes. I don’t concur with his vision right now.

    Maybe he smoked something this time LOL.

  • Slackware user

    I, for one, completely agree with Stallman on this. What’s more important than controlling everything that happens with your files and programs? I don’t see why anybody thinks it’s a good idea to be dependent on what a company deems necessary for the people that use their service(s). What is so appealing about losing your freedom?

    Seriously, being under the control of a company that builds fences to keep people from practicing their rights to freedom is entirely unacceptable, and it is stupid to rely on people with more interest in money than your own freedom.

    I’m sincerely sorry for the people that just don’t “get it” when it comes to software freedoms.

  • Breton

    Whether his point has validity or not, the man is a little insane

    Ad Hominem anyone? Whether the point has validity or not is only dependant on whether the point has validity or not. Whether he’s insane has nothing at all to do with it.

    If you don’t like Gmail Service move to Yahoo service and that’s all, Where is the lock?.

    and how precisely do you propose to move all your emails from gmail to yahoo? There’s the lock.

    Someone please do Stallman a favor and kindly stick a shoe in his mouth. This guy likes to talk about freedom a lot; so, do we have the freedom to choose whatever we want (even propietary) and not being treated as stupids by him and his cohorts every time?

    More Ad Hominem. So the guy is eccentric, so what? So was Einstein, and Newton (Not to compare). nobody is denying it, but that has nothing to do with the quality of the argument. Zero.

    He has a point, though. Think about it. Imagine we lived in China, and all your seperatist writings were kept in some kind of yahoo service. History tells us that, if asked by the Chinese government, yahoo will hand it over.

    Suppose the your own government goes that way. Would you feel safe keeping your documents in the cloud?

    That’s a privacy point, it’s not exactly what he’s talking about in the quote. But it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where google upgrades, or changes its terms of service, or doesn’t provide an easy way to export all your documents, or decides that they can publish your book without your permission. Maybe it’s not likely, but it’s possible. Do you want to risk it?

  • Breton

    And when you put your money in the bank, if the bank goes out of business, you lose your money (subject to some kind of government insurance).

    If you mortgage your house, you no longer own it. Default on your payments and see what happens to “your” house.

    Why can’t people keep things in perspective?

    I can’t help but also point out how ironic these statements are in light of recent events.