I have recently read some
incorrect interpretations of the story
between James Gosling and Richard Stallman. It’s easy to get lost in the
various ego-centered wars flying around so I thought I would take this
opportunity to set the record straight by narrating the events as I remember
them. Of course, my recollection might be a bit biased but the links to
the various posts should allow you to make your own decision.
Now, let’s take a little trip back with father Tiresias…
Chronologically, the first "real" emacs was written by Stallman and
then branched and improved by Gosling under the name "gosmacs". There was obviously a little bit of friction involved
with this first fork but it was nothing in comparison of what was going to
follow. But first of all, some background on Stallman.
We all know the individual and his extreme views on open source, but what
most people probably don’t know is that back then, Stallman was extremely
hostile to graphics, bitmap screens and all this fancy new technology that was
going to bring the computers to the masses. He was even a very vocal enemy
of… the mouse. Yup.
These beliefs made him very hostile to the simple idea of making gnuemacs
usable in a graphic environment, which back then was X Window. Tired with
his position and also upset by the constant delay that emacs 19 was
incurring, a group of people decided to fork off gnuemacs and start a new
project intended to gather all the latest technologies that were picking up
Most of these people were working for a company called Lucid, and therefore,
they named their emacs "Lucid emacs" (which became XEmacs in 1994
after Lucid went out of business).
Implemented by a talented group of developers, one of them being an
individual called Jamie Zawinski (and I’ll get back to him shortly), Lucid Emacs
soon reached a very decent shape within just a few months while gnuemacs 19 had been
stagnating on the FSF hard drives for several years. It was getting
increasingly clear that Stallman was more than upset at the fork and at the very
fast progress of Lucid Emacs, and he manifested his anger many times throughout this
period, like for example in
From: Richard Stallman <email@example.com> To: jwz Subject: lemacs 19.10 We decided not to post your announcements because they seem to say unfair negative things about Emacs 19 and because they advertise non-free Lucid products.
But it was too late. Lucid Emacs was a high-quality implementation of
emacs and its very innovative support for the mouse and other graphic features
made it an instant hit in the emacs community. Soon, gnuemacs users
started asking for the same features in Emacs 19 and Stallman reluctantly
conceded to at least look on the other side of the fence.
For someone who has
made his goal in life to promote free software and code sharing, Stallman is
showing a very puzzling tendency to practice the mantra "do what I say, not what
First of all, he has been repeatedly
nailed in public for
reinventing things from scratch instead of using existing libraries, but
once again, he showed an extreme reluctance to merging the code lines, even
refusing to reuse the pieces that Lucid Emacs had already implemented.
This decision was partly due to Stallman’s resolute belief to not trust anyone
but himself but also from
personal problems he had with some of the Lucid developers.
Zawinski tried several times to
correct several misconceptions that Stallman had about the technical aspect
of the work involved, but his advice fell on deaf ears. The height of the
debate was reached when it was pointed out that despite all his critiques of
Lucid Emacs, Stallman had apparently not
even try to run it. I will let you read the rest of this fascinating
thread, which sheds a lot of light about what it’s like to work with Stallman
(notice also the post from an individual named Marc Andreessen… that was
The merge between Lucid Emacs and emacs 19 was attempted but failed. We
will never know the exact technical reasons but Stallman’s track record in this
area doesn’t leave much doubt in my mind. However, we can see a general
pattern in Stallman’s ways: he has a hard time dealing with success coming
from others. He showed this clearly with his catastrophic handling of the
Lucid Emacs situation, and more recently with the "Gnu/Linux" fiasco, where he
tried once again to receive credit for something he had nothing to do with.
But before we conclude this little retrospective, I’d like to say a few words
about Jamie Zawinski, for whom I have a particular fondness.
Aside from being a very talented developer who supplied a great deal of high
quality tools for developers during these troubled times (old-timers will
remember Gnus, BBDB, etc…), Jamie is a hilarious person whose postings and
constant pranks have brought more than a daily chuckle on developers faces back
then. His Web site leaves little doubt about
his extreme devotion to hackdom, but he also regularly regaled many people with
his constant stream of whacky ideas, the best of which is probably the
Tent of Doom. Be sure to
read some of his random rants, they
are worth it. After Lucid, Jamie became employee #20 at Netscape and the
rest is history…