I just finished reading this article (here) about Dell letting on that they are going to bundle Free Software in an OEM fashion. I say to myself “wow.” Why do I say wow though? Is it because I think that they’ve bent to the pressure? Is it because I think that they’ve changed their minds and have decided to support the cause of freedom? Is it because I think that they’re doing something subversive that poses a risk to freedom? The answer is yes.
Dell is doing this for one reason and one reason only: profit. Anybody who thinks Dell is doing this for the “right” reasons is fooling themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t imply that profit is the wrong reason. I’m only saying that a pro-freedom stance would be the most correct reason. At this point in the history of unjust restriction though, I think I’ll just take what I can get. If Dell can profit by respecting freedom, I for one am happy for them. Hell, it’d certainly make me more likely to buy another Dell (even though their finance company blows).
Now onto what scares me about this…
Dell says many right things here. Things such as supporting Free Software drivers and encouraging hardware vendors to release Free Software drivers (or at least specs). This could backfire though. What if, instead of Free Software drivers, Dell’s support of the GNU/Linux operating system merely encourages more hardware vendors to release compatible non-free drivers? That could result in fewer Free Software drivers being released.
I’m sure this also means that Dell will be releasing some of the win32 codecs and such OEM. This is perceived as a good thing by many, but I kinda see it as a scary thing. Being able to watch existing media is a good thing, but by using these codecs in their binary-only forms we’re essentially dismissing the necessity for freed codecs that won’t violate the DMCA to work on. This leaves us with prettier, more desirable shackles, but shackles none-the-less.
Then we go on to the question of “which distribution?” Now, I’m an Ubuntu/Kubuntu developer, so I’ll obviously advocate Kubuntu as the distro of choice. Does that mean that I think Kubuntu should be the only distro? Heavens no! Having a single OEM provider releasing a single distribution could be a serious setback for Free Software. Think, what if SuSE is that supported distribution? What if CentOS was chosen? Or Redhat? Redhat 6–if you all can remember that far back–was a DEBACLE! So that could mean two things: 1) the chosen distribution may be overly cautious about what changes they put into the software, and 2) all thee users could be stuck with a crappy build and left at the mercy of the–presumably commercial–tech support (and we know how helpful those folks can be with their “are you sure it’s plugged in?”). I think an “official” distribution is a bad idea overall. Choice is good, I like choice, long live choice.
That brings me to my last concern: proprietary programs. Flash is probably the most commonly installed non-free program in a free software operating system. Next up is likely Java, and that should be GPLv2’ed in a stable release in not too long. What about other programs like Real Player or Acroread or one of the other programs? What if iTunes makes it in there? I know lots of folks–particularly Apple folks–will say “alright! iTunes for Linux!” and to that I’d respond “no! Not DRM!” More OEM also means that it is likely that more players will pop up in non-free programs that are GNU/Linux compatible.
There are some things that I think are very good here…
It’s entirely possible that I’m too cynical and that Dell and/or HP will really try to get something done about Free Software 3D drivers. I seriously doubt they will, but think about how cool life would be without them. You could run your compiz without having to recompile non-free modules every time you update your kernel.
Also, wouldn’t it be nice if you could find more out-of-the-box hardware and laptops that support Free Software? I’d love it. No more Broadcoms, no more proprietary card readers, no more fancy keyboard buttons or toggle lights that don’t work properly. I’d be in a dreamy geeky heaven. You’d also know that the treacherous computing modules wouldn’t be in play either.
Oh how sweet life could be if it was no longer necessary to FIGHT for our freedom. It would be nice if it were respected by those who seek to profit from its subjugation. I think an OEM box, while I do have my reservations, is an excellent idea that I am completely for. I will buy one if it comes out and it is truely a free software friendly box. Lord knows I need to get off of this piece of garbage HP laptop.
So please–respectfully–share your opinions on this matter if you so desire. Nighty night.