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Linux and ‘Open’ Core

Posted in GNU/Linux, Kernel at 4:56 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Linus Torvalds

Summary: A quick word about the suggestions that Linux is “proprietary”, which helps some FUD-Meisters

Without delving into the specifics and the hyperlinks (deliberately omitted), there’s a debate right now about whether Linux is Free software or proprietary (or both). It is probably not the best question to ask. Linux — like Android — enables many people to move from a world that is purely proprietary into a world where freedom is favoured and companies adapt gradually, eventually realising that by making their program code (e.g. drivers) publicly available they get a lot of ‘free’ bug fixes and improved stability. This is true not just in Linux but in other layers of the system, even hardware. So, Techrights will not get involved in the counter-productive debate which at the moment just feeds enemies of freedom (they use Linux as ‘proof’ that free/open source software cannot succeed). Even the FSF learned to abstain from talking about it like that.

“Today many people are switching to free software for purely practical reasons. That is good, as far as it goes, but that isn’t all we need to do! Attracting users to free software is not the whole job, just the first step.”

Richard Stallman

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  1. Adrian Malacoda said,

    November 11, 2010 at 10:40 pm


    Yes, Linux (the kernel) does contain proprietary bits. IIRC the guy making this claim is one of the mail developers of the Linux-libre kernel, so he’d be in a position to know.

    Kernel blobs are hardly the worst of our problems, though.

    Adrian Malacoda Reply:

    *main, not mail

    and I wholeheartedly agree that, at this stage, Linux-with-blobs (and Android) is preferable to something 100% proprietary.

    Dr. Roy Schestowitz Reply:

    I wrote on the subject in Identica about 50 times. Basically, Oliva finds not much sympathy there.

    Adrian Malacoda Reply:

    As I use a GNU/Linux-libre distro, I take a slight offense at describing the Linux-libre people as “FUDmeisters.” I think it’s an issue, but as I said earlier, there are more pressing issues to be concerned with. I think it’s just another example of the philosophical divide between the FSF “idealists” and the opportunists like Torvalds.

    There are active threats, such as threats from Apple, Microsoft, etc. The threat of kernel blobs is a more passive threat, and at this stage I accept that some proprietary blobs may be necessary to run a GNU/Linux distro. Even so, it is much more preferable to the proprietary Microsoft/Apple world.

    It is not so much open core, because the open core idea focuses on the proprietary parts (because these are the parts that are supposed to sell), while the Free part is only there so as to be able to throw around the “open source” buzzphrase. Open core is proprietary in nature and has the same characteristics as purely proprietary software, and the community (if there is one) generally does not develop organically because the company has a vested interest in keeping the community under control so that it does not develop Free replacements for the company’s own proprietary products.

    The Linux kernel has none of the attributes associated with open core, aside from the inclusion of proprietary code.

    Dr. Roy Schestowitz Reply:

    There’s an unfortunate misunderstanding here. I did not call Linux-libre people “FUDmeisters”. I actually encouraged them to keep the pressure on. The ones whom I called “FUDmeisters” are those who exploit the press release from Oliva and either show/claim that Free software cannot succeed business-wise or that the community is fragmented. Head over to Microsoft/Apple blogs which discuss it (and to some extent the 451 Group) to see what I’m talking about.

    So to clarify again, I support Linux-libre and “FUDmeisters” are those who exploit Linux-libre to advance the Microsoft/Apple point of view, based on inaccuracies/spin. My post was intentionally vague and it’s unfortunate that it’s therefore easy to misinterpret.

    Adrian Malacoda Reply:

    Thanks for the clarification.

    twitter Reply:

    This is not entirely true:

    “The threat of kernel blobs is a more passive threat, and at this stage I accept that some proprietary blobs may be necessary to run a GNU/Linux distro.”

    Binary blobs are only required to make some hardware work and users are better off with other hardware. Winmodems are a famous example of this kind of hardware. Performance is always dreadful, as can be expected from such unfriendly devices. Companies that make hardware with secrets do so to screw users.

    Binary blobs should also be avoided for privacy and security reasons. If the hardware has any computing capability, binary blobs can mask malicious features like any other piece of non free software. This is a general problem for any system that uses non free software, open core and distributions that include Adobe, Skype and other “convenience” software.

    I think everyone in the free software world understands that binary blobs are a bad thing. Not everyone has taken their thoughts to their logical conclusion as Richard Stallman has. If they had, and really value their freedom more than they value toys, they would also be running a 400 MHz MIPS system with free software from the ground up.

    The difficulty of avoiding binary blobs and non free bios is not a free software failing, it is the result of decades of anti-trust failings. Non free software makers have greatly retarded the US and world hardware markets. This is why you see crippled WinCE netbooks with pathetic hardware specs in stores and why people still pay hundreds of dollars for things like iPhone, essentially a decade old ARM PDA platform. Computer makers can make better devices with free software but Microsoft and Apple block them from the US and other markets. The Asus EEE PC is a good example of this that Techrights extensively documented. The attack on Motorola and Android is just the newest chapter in this sad story. The good news is that the bad guys are getting weaker with each wave of new hardware/software.

    Adrian Malacoda Reply:

    All of this is true and binary blobs are a major disadvantage. However, given a complete system (say, a laptop or sub-notebook) that contains such components, the choice is either between using GNU/Linux-libre and having to do without functionality such as networking, using GNU/Linux-encumbered and having a full-featured experience, and using Windows.

    Case in point: my laptop runs very well with Trisquel (Linux-libre), and it appears none of the hardware inside it depends on blobs. However, I just installed that same distro on my father’s sub-notebook and wireless capability won’t work. Turns out it needed a binary Broadcom driver that’s inside Ubuntu’s repository.

    Binary blobs are indeed evil, but they may be a necessary evil in some circumstances. Hopefully these circumstances will become less frequent, just like dependence on non-standard web elements (read: Flash) is decreasing (ironically, in part due to Apple).

    Dr. Roy Schestowitz Reply:

    I heard this claim some days ago and then challenged it. How can we be sure Apple is a major contributing factor and not webm/ogg/html5/etc? Remember that Apple lobbies for MPEG-LA and not webm/ogg.

    twitter Reply:

    When in doubt, strip it out. Broadcom is a good example of problem hardware and the best answer is to replace it. As you have seen, hostile hardware limits your choice of free software distribution in much the same way it does in the non free software world. Ubuntu had a binary driver for you today, but it might not tomorrow and you will then be forced to find a new network card, a new laptop or some other distribution. This is the same kind of planned obsolesence found in the Windows world except gnu/linux might produce a free software driver. It’s usually easier and better for performance to replace the offending hardware right away. All sorts of problems vanish when nasty hardware is removed or disabled. Find a PCI express card or USB device that works well if the laptop misbehaves. In your case, it is too late to punish Broadcom but you can reward a friendly hardware maker and should. Perhaps there is a gnu/linux friendly computer store near you that can help.

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