Bonum Certa Men Certa

The Role and High Value of Truly Free Distributions of Linux

[Note: some of the arguments here are out of date]

As GNU/Linux becomes more popular, the motives behind its inceptions are often forgotten. Linux is a free operating system, but its broadening userbase perceives this freedom as one that pertains to cost, not rights and liberty. It is therefore important to step back and remind ourselves of the purpose and importance of distributions which try to make a difference, sometimes at the cost of ease of installation and use.



gNewSense (pronounced nuisance) quickly caught the spotlight last year. It was the latest among several Linux distributions which adhered to the mantra of Free software [sic] (capitalisation in "Free" indicates that it refers not to price but to freedom). This mantra had been defined in line with the principles of the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation. gNewSense is a version of Linux which is derived from Ubuntu Linux. It essentially strips off every bit of code that is not Free, i.e. all elements that are closed and proprietary.

gNewSense is an intriguing name that has been neglected for a while because Canonical, the founder and parent company of Ubuntu Linux, introduced Gobuntu, which maintained its roots and relationship with gNewSense. At present, because of the popularity and ubiquity of Ubuntu Linux, Gobuntu is often seen as the de facto Free distribution of Linux.

“...deficiencies should often be associated with the manufacturers of various bits of hardware.”To an average user, Gobuntu can be daunting. It would not work trivially with the average laptop. Its support for certain hardware components, for example, would be limited or nonexistent. The fault lies not in Linux. Rather, such deficiencies should often be associated with the manufacturers of various bits of hardware.

If drivers are provided for Linux, they often come only in binary form (i.e. no source code), which is forbidden from inclusion in Free Linux distributions. In fact, some hardware is not supported by Linux at all, albeit the situation is improving as more manufacturers recognise and respond to growth and rising demand for Linux in the marketplace.

The goals of Free Linux distributions and particularly the means for achieving these goals are not a case of prejudice, let alone what sometimes gets attributed to zeal. The assumptions made here and the theory behind this have deep roots in scientific thinking. Free Linux distributions offer several benefits, which will be discussed in turn.

Security



It is not only believed, but it was also shown by studies that open source drivers make the software more secure, predictable, and therefore robust as a whole. A Linux distribution that contains 'black boxes' from various vendors is generally misunderstood. It is therefore unsurprising that the next Linux kernel, whose version number will be 2.6.24, has already taken steps that discriminate against binary drivers.

It must be remembered that software cannot be tested properly if some of its internal parts are developed in complete isolation. There is no room for independent inspection and comprehensive audits of the software in its entirety -- from the bottom layer which is the kernel up to more abstract and user-fundamental layers, such as the graphical user interface.

As an example of this issue, consider a number of critical security holes in the binary drivers delivered to Linux by NVidia. These drivers, which sit deep in the 'belly' of the operating system, have on several occasions exposed the entire system to intrusion, essentially leaving it open for full compromise. Not only could this be prevented at an early stage had more eyes been watching the code, but independent parties could also patch the flaw promptly rather than wait for NVidia to finally unleash a solution. As long as the development is closed-source, NVidia is the only company that controls its drivers, which are the only ones available. This leads to the next point.

Control



Over time, due to questionably-welcomed sophistication, there is an increasing loss of control over one's own software. To use an example, many of us have heard about digital rights management (DRM). In the Free software world, a great deal of notoriety was earned by DRM. Its harms are believed to have outweighed the claimed benefit, which is reduction in copyrights infringement (and to content producers -- the reselling of content, which is essentially being rented, not sold). At the end of the day, data can be lost repeatedly, which costs the consumer.

In this struggle for control, the user strives to control access to personal data and manage his/her expenses. With proprietary software, one usually buys a license to use the software rather than truly own the software. It is firmly believed by some luminaries that only Free software can change these worrisome rules completely. It would stop discrimination against the user of software and the consumer of information.

With Linux, ideally, the user should be in full control of the software. The user gains full ownership too. However, binary drivers in Linux change this. When it comes to behaviour of a driver, one relies on the vendor of that driver. It's all or nothing at all. If the user is not happy with the behaviour of the driver and rejects it, then corresponding hardware is rendered unusable. Likewise, if the user dislikes the behaviour of closed-source software (application), then the only other option is to choose alternative software which is open and Free, rather than reshape and tailor the existing software for personal needs.

Choice



Binary drivers and software reduce choice. They narrow down and impose limits on choice of hardware. Additionally, they often restrict the user in terms of platforms and pertinent packages that are supported. Once again, the rigid nature of such drivers (or software) means that it remains the choice of the hardware (or software) maker what is supported and what is not. Decisions get tied to considerations such as a budget, business relationships, business objectives, and neglect of legacy. These factors are not customer-centric, so rights can be abused.

On the other hand, with free drivers, whose acceptance is facilitated by projects like Gobuntu, all code is independent from the iron fist of its original creator and maintainer. The benefits are many; they include more control over cost, reuse of old PCs, improved digital preservation, and diversity, which can be important in a plethora of situations. For instance, diversity is sometimes vital for security. It is through obscurity and inconsistency, which are separate from but not opposites of transparency.

Cost



The issue of choice can be broken down further to discuss cost separately. Many of us have at some stage faced the unfortunate phenomenon (and usually a deliberate business strategy) known as "forced upgrades". The argument which underlines the danger of this -- from the user's point of view -- is that vendors are able to control the way that drivers, much like the hardware that they operate, evolve over the years. Hardware can become unsupported at any stage and assuming bug fixes are needed, the only choice is then to purchase new hardware. This is where the high price of upgrades comes into play.

If an entire operating system is maintained and controlled by a group of so-called 'benevolent dictators' who have full access to all the code, then responsible action will be taken to ensure legacy hardware is supported and bug fixes are delivered without the conflicting interests of hardware makers (profits versus obligations towards the customer). Even if the code is not maintained by this group, which could, for example, be core BSD or Linux kernel developers, a company large enough can hire a professional -- if none is already available in house -- in order to mend driver code, which is both openly available and free to modify.

“The inconveniences encountered initially, whilst getting accustomed to a simplified and stripped-down version of Linux, are short-lived.”To sum up, betting one's business on a Linux distribution that is truly Free is a case of controlling one's own destination, direction- and expense-wise. The inconveniences encountered initially, whilst getting accustomed to a simplified and stripped-down version of Linux, are short-lived. That is because when correct hardware configurations and combinations are chosen (e.g. in the next hardware refresh cycle), there is no trouble ahead. Au Conraire -- trouble is only caused when hardware is picked with long-lasting dependency on the company from which it was bought.

Next time someone enthusiastically says "you should try Gobuntu," ponder this: rather than dismiss this as 'religious' madness, as some people do, you ought to understand that a larger proportion of the industry that surrounds us finally takes a step in the right direction. AMD, for example, proved that the impossible can become a reality. They took the Free route with their highly-valued ATI drivers.

Never shall we say never. If you demand open source drivers and dismiss those which shift control towards the vendor (i.e. themselves) rather than yourself, then change will follow. Remind yourself that the customer is always in charge and demand drive sales distribution. A good start would be to attempt installing a distribution of Linux which is free in every [gNew]sense of the word. It might prove to be a nuisance at first, but if you do not stand up for a needed change, who will?

Originally published in Datamation in 2007

Comments

Recent Techrights' Posts

linuxsecurity.com Still At It! 98% Probability Chatbot Generated, According to GPTZero!
"The Internet is mostly made by AI... but that's ok, it's all being deleted anyway."
 
Links 24/05/2024: Layoffs at LinkedIn and Election Interference Via Social Control Media
Links for the day
Getting a 'Thank You' From Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC) Will Cost You $5,000 to $30,000 (Same as Last Year)
Right now one of their associates (SFC) tries to spend money to censor us
KDE Neon Weirdness
Reprinted with permission from Ryan Farmer
Congratulations to Sirius Open Source, Still Claiming to Employ People Who Left Half a Decade Ago (or More!)
What signal does that send to con men?
[Meme] Bluewashing
Cent OS? No more.
IRC Proceedings: Thursday, May 23, 2024
IRC logs for Thursday, May 23, 2024
Over at Tux Machines...
GNU/Linux news for the past day
Tenfold Increase for ChromeOS+GNU/Linux in Brunei
Brunei Darussalam is a country most people don't know about and never even heard about
Coming Soon: Another Round of 'Cancel Stallman' Chorus
The series required a great deal of patience
Links 23/05/2024: SeekOut Collapsing and Why Microsoft Probably Isn’t Going to Buy Valve
Links for the day
Gemini Links 23/05/2024: The Allure of Vinyl
Links for the day
Links 23/05/2024: Apple Responds to Streaming Music Fine, DOJ to Sue Live Nation
Links for the day
Links 23/05/2024: UK General Election and Archival
Links for the day
[Video] 3 Major Issues in Nationwide, Including (Potentially) a Major Data Breach
'electronic-bank' security has become the joke of the town
[Meme] Pointing Out Corruption Isn't a "Hate Crime"
The European Commission's reflexive (re)action to any sort of doubt or criticism
More Evidence in "iLearn AI Day" (a Buzzwords Festival) That EPO Intends to Eliminate Staff and Deviate Further Away from Fairness, Law, and Constitutions (Including Its Own!)
The EPO is a very potent danger to Europe's unity and the very concept of lawfulness. It exists to serve international monopolists and patent lawyers.
Microsoft's Windows Has Fallen Below 3% in Democratic Republic of the Congo (100+ Million Citizens)
Microsoft's sharp fall in Congo
The Real Reason Censorship is Attempted Against Us (and Against Others Too)
Microsoft's Windows market monopoly was in trouble
You Are Not The Only One
Reprinted with permission from Cyber Show (C|S)
GNU/Linux in Monaco: From 0.3% to Almost 6%
Monaco is a small country
Over at Tux Machines...
GNU/Linux news for the past day
IRC Proceedings: Wednesday, May 22, 2024
IRC logs for Wednesday, May 22, 2024
Microsoft Has Lost Cote D'ivoire (Ivory Coast), Where Android Now Exceeds 60% of the Operating Systems' 'Market Share'
According to statCounter anyway
The Rumour Said Later Today Red Hat (IBM) Might Announce Layoffs
Let's see what happens later today (or next week)
Governments That Fail Journalism
Australia is known for giving us pure garbage like Rupert Murdoch
Windows Has Fallen From 'Grace'
When you tell people that Microsoft watches their every move in Windows many of them will freak out and ask for alternatives
Serbia: GNU/Linux at Almost 4% (or Beyond if ChromeOS is Counted)
considerable growth for GNU/Linux
Links 22/05/2024: China in Other Countries' Islands, Growing Threat of Piracy
Links for the day
Gemini Links 22/05/2024: Freedom Through Limitation, Cloud Photos
Links for the day
Canonical Supports Monopoly
more of the same
A farewell to Finland, an occupied territory
Finland, Finland, Finland
Links 22/05/2024: "Copilot+" as Mass Surveillance and Microsoft Defying Consent in Scarlett Johansson's Case
Links for the day
[Meme] Escalating After Failures
4 stages of cancel culture
Red Hat Had 2+ Days to Deny Reports of Impending Layoffs. But Red Hat Chose to Keep Silent.
Red Hat DOES NOT deny layoffs on the way
Microsoft-Connected Person Was Threatening to Sue Me and to Sue My Wife (Because His Feelings Were Hurt After Had He Spent More Than a Decade Defaming Me and Violating My Family's Dignity, Privacy)
litigation was chosen and we shall defend everything we wrote
Over at Tux Machines...
GNU/Linux news for the past day
IRC Proceedings: Tuesday, May 21, 2024
IRC logs for Tuesday, May 21, 2024
Attempts to Sink the Free Software Movement (Under the Guise of Saving It)
We can see who's being drowned
Czech Republic: Windows Down From 98% to 43%, GNU/Linux Rises to Over 3%
modest gains for GNU/Linux
Links 22/05/2024: Pixar Layoffs and More Speculation About Microsoft Shutdowns/Layoffs (Ninja Theory)
Links for the day
Microsoft-Connected Sites Trying to Shift Attention Away From Microsoft's Megabreach Only Days Before Important If Not Unprecedented Grilling by the US Government?
Why does the mainstream media not entertain the possibility a lot of these talking points are directed out of Redmond?