12.18.06

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Freedom vs. Features – Ubuntu’s Search for Bling

Posted in Apple, GNU/Linux, GPL, Ubuntu, Vista, Windows at 4:04 pm by Shane Coyle

While I fully understand the intent and frustration behind the whole no proprietary blobs in the kernel argument, it wouldn’t have had the desired effect – the GPL does not exclude the loading of closed modules, just the distribution with such modules, as I understand it anyhow.

Which, brings me to this: Jono Bacon has a posting in which he is arguing for the community to compromise its commitment to freedom so that distributions (Ubuntu) can ship 3D accelerated desktops that compete, very favorably, with Mac and Windows. Bacon makes the argument that, without bling, Linux will be relegated to a niche OS and never able to achieve world domination.

What I believe is critically important is that we never stop fighting for Open Source 3D graphics drivers. A comprimise in freedom in part of the wider Linux distribution needs to be backed up with a confidence that the freedom will continue to be the priority as market share grows. The key difference here is our approach to getting this freedom – it will only happen with market pressure. The fight for free drivers for reasons of freedom has not proved successful, and the choice to only buy Intel will have some impact, but not a huge impact due to lower market share. We need to become a large and relavent player, a player that can mandate decisions at a market level that will truly affect the market. Sure, there are plenty of challenges to this approach – when we get a large market share, would Linux distributions really want to rock the boat and demand Open Source drivers? Well, this is the proof of the pudding. I expect companies such as Canonical, Red Hat, Linspire and Novell to always place consistant market pressure on the hardware manufacturors to understand and migrate to the ethos of free software.

I am all for bling, beryl is fantastic, and I have no problem with users installing proprietary drivers – wireless, raid, graphics, on their own machine(s). Actually, lsmod on this laptop shows the fglrx module is loaded. I personally couldn’t care less about market share for GNU/Linux, but fully respect those who do – as long as they play within the rules (Hoooray! Red Hat, Boooo! Novell).

The GPL is not an EULA, it is a distribution license, I can do what I like with the software on my machine, including making a bastardized GNU/proprietary system tuned just the way I like it, with whatever I need to best support my hardware. But if I wanted to distribute the software as such, I wouldn’t be able to do so under the GPL, I could contact all of the authors and try to work out alternate licensing, but not under the GPL, again as I understand it.

I do agree that only market pressure will force the proprietary drivers to open up, but if Ubuntu and other distributions take the annoyance away from the end user, there will be no market backlash. The fact that users need to go through extra steps to enable multimedia and 3D support is lamentable, but it is the only way that people would become aware of the issue and exert any pressure on the manufacturers.

Regardless, as I see it, Ubuntu cannot ship the proprietary drivers and abide by the GPL. It is not a question of compromising ideals, but rather violating the license that allows you to redistribute other’s work. I thought that the Kororaa thing brought this out and clarified it, but now we have Sabayon (an awesome distro, sorry to call them out) and Ubuntu heading down the same precipitous path.

Why is it so bad to include it in the unofficial, but obligatory, Automatix? Or, after first boot presenting the user with an option to improve the graphics/networking performance by downloading a "better" driver for the detected hardware.

So, users are a short nag screen and a few clicks from GUI heaven, it still didn’t cost anyone their liberty or violate anyone’s copyright. You can even put in a button for sending a nastygram to the detected closed-source vendor’s ombudsman office asking them to open up their specs or drivers.

Maybe that would have the desired effect.

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