There’s a rising chorus in the land- “Linux needs proprietary codecs and drivers, or it’s dead as a doornail! Proprietary multimedia 3D bling is the road to Freedom! Sacrifice a little freedom now to get more freedom later!”
This is a strange song. It was sung first by fans of Linspire. Now it’s Ubuntu. The idea is that bundling all manner of proprietry binary drivers and multimedia codecs, and having 3D special-effects-desktops is necessary to further the cause of Free Software. The plan is these will attract huge steaming wads of users. Then when the huge steaming wads of users attain a certain critical mass, somehow all that proprietary guff will become Free, and joy will fill the land.
They are right about one thing- bundling all these things will make Linspire and Ubuntu attractive to more users, because not everyone is interested in free-as-in-freedom, or they have needs that are not met by Free software. So the result will be more people using Linspire and Ubuntu. Where are these users coming from? If they are attracting Windows users and causing them to fling Windows into the burn barrel and never ever use it again, I say huzzah and hurrah! The drinks are on me! If I were Queen of the Internet I would wave my Scepter of Power and kick off every single Windows PC. No exceptions. I’m tired of paying the price for all those trivially-easily-infected machines ruining the Internet and costing the rest of us mass money. I’m tired of Microsoft locking up the market and taking away customer choice. If it weren’t for Free and open source software, we would have zero choices. OK, so five flavors of Vista = choice, sorry.
But the details of this plan are vague. How will embracing non-Free code will result in more Free code? It could be that filling Linux with proprietary bling could be a winning strategy for Free software, though I think it will result it hordes of folks who just want a free ride. But instead of arguing endlessly about it, which is entertaining and fun, I decided to see if it was possible to have a 100% Free Linux desktop with all the multimedia goodies. And I learned that yes, it is.
100% Free Linux With Goodies
Both Fedora and Debian have always had a policy of including only Free/Open source software. Users who want non-FOSS packages can easily get them from alternative repositories; they’re just a click away. This permits users to easily control what goes on their systems.
Then there is gNewSense. I know, many people mock and criticize it. But they have not tried it. gNewSense is Ubuntu with all non-Free code stripped out, and they really mean all of it, including binary kernel blobs necessary to run common hardware. There are no alternative repositories containing non-Free software. Users can still install whatever they want, just like on any Linux; they’ll just have to work a little harder.
Hardware support in Linux has grown phenomenally, and there are native drivers for all kinds of devices. But if you want FOSS drivers, your choices are limited. Don’t blame Linux for this. There’s a whole huge community of developers and a giant FOSS codebase available for any hardware manufacturer who wants to take advantage of it. The welcome mat is always out. But as long as Linux users continue to purchase hardware that requires proprietary drivers, where is their incentive to change?
Still, you can put together a good-quality 100% Free desktop system. For wireless networking, Ralink and Realtek both make chipsets with GPL drivers and no binary kernel blobs. Several ATI video cards have GPL 3D drivers. You can play encrypted DVDs on your Linux box with the GPL libdvdcss. There are many GPL audio players, including mp3 players. ffmpeg and other FOSS programs play and encode virtually all video formats.
The problems with multimedia playback and encoding are not software licenses or a lack of software- it’s patent encumbrances and DMCA restrictions. Which makes these primarily a problem for United States citizens, and the rest of the world laughs at us.
What about laptops, PDAs, and other devices? I don’t know- readers who do know are invited to post about them.
The bottom line is it’s not necessary to sacrifice freedom for usability, and you can even have bling. We have meeelyuns of non-Free choices in the computing world. But not so many Free choices, and I sure do hate to see them decrease.
January 13, 2007
Linux Bling With 100% Free Software
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