OEM Vendors to Bundle Free Software?!

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.

14 Replies to “OEM Vendors to Bundle Free Software?!”

  1. basically I agree. free / choice is always a good thing.
    And yes: I remember those SuSE and Redhat 5.x 6.x days… PIA – everything I can say about this with those two.
    But even if I’d like to see free divers (and of course no DRM) I prefer closed source drivers over no drivers or broken drivers…

  2. they should just bundle swfdec (YES, 64 bit support + youtube!) and evince instead of acrobat and flash.
    as for the non-free drivers and binary codecs, I agree. The non-free drivers is a bigger issue in my mind however..it depends on how they bundle them. When nouveau comes out will they bundle that or the Nvidia binary driver?

  3. I wish we weren’t even talking about “free” software or “open-source” or “proprietary” software. That is I wish people would only use the unqualified word software when they were talking about the genuine thing. The truth is that software that’s not fully released (no source) or released with unpractical or non-technical restrictions (license management) is disingenuous and should naturally be called something like “pseudo software.”

  4. James Stansell: You, sir, are a genius. Please join me in referring to all software that is released in such a fashion as “half-assedware,” or “liarware,” or maybe even “malware?”

  5. Free drivers for them means less support costs.
    Anyway, this most post seems like a bit of a non-sequitur. The advent of Linux distributions, and their popularity reaching a point where Dell is bundling them, is because of the freedom aspect.
    There isn’t anything else – in almost any other customer satisfaction metric, Windows or OS X beat us.
    You’re basically implying that, if Linux becomes more popular through proprietary driver support, there will be more proprietary driver support. Well, yeah, sure.
    Except, that’s not how Linux is becoming more popular.

  6. Scott Robinson: I disagree that non-free operating systems actually defeated a GNU/Linux operating system as a whole in some sort of “customer satisfaction” survey. Many people I know are perfectly content on GNU/Linux, and many of them aren’t even particularly savvy. My wife uses Kubuntu quite well and there are zero usability complaints (except when I’m killing her performance running large dataset analysis on the box through SSH 🙂
    I’m also not implying anything. I’m explicitly stating that if we say that proprietary software is okay, and we embrace it, it will become more of a problem. No implication there sir.
    I also disagree with your final statement. I think GNU/Linux is becoming more popular because of what people can only do with non-free drivers. Many users play non-free games using a win32 emulator, and many users are starting to use composite window managers for eye-candy that wouldn’t be possible without non-free drivers for many. I also hear rumors (not sure how real they are) that Beryl has binary blobs in it as well.

  7. So Dell announces that they’re going to offer Linux preinstalled on some of their computers — and without any evidence at all, you conclude that it’s “something subversive that poses a risk to freedom”. Fascinating. Are you auditioning for a job with Microsoft’s PR department?
    Also, what on earth makes you think Dell can get “Apple folks” to make iTunes for Linux? Since when has Dell been able to make Apple do anything?

  8. mpt: Wow, did you actually *read* the article, or did you just skim it and assumed you knew what I was talking about.
    I’m speculating, based on past behavior of companies that claim to be adopting “open source” and end up restricting freedom even more than before they did anything at all (thanks a lot Apple).
    The iTunes thing was a hypothetical example, not some sort of accusation.
    The commercial that I linked to in the subsequent post where they were promoting Oracle as a way of getting away from “Proprietaryville” kinda proves my suspicions though. Dell is going where the money is, not where the freedom is. If they thought that getting iTunes over to a GNU/Linux operating system would make them more money, they’d throw dollars and cents at Apple and I’m sure Apple would consider it (though I doubt they’d agree).
    Mr. mpt, before you comment on blogs using hypothetical examples and speculation (I haven’t seen a blog yet that wasn’t) you should learn the difference between concerns and speculation, and accusation. If you had read the FULL article, you would have seen that I’m actually excited about Dell’s talk of selling GNU/Linux OEM machines. I even said I’d buy one.

  9. Ok, so here’s some simple questions. Answer them or not as you wish.
    1. Which is better freedom-wise: running a Linux OS with proprietary drivers, or running Windows with proprietary drivers?
    2. Which is better freedom-wise: using a Linux OS with Windows Media codecs, or using Windows with Windows Media codecs? (Think carefully now.)
    3. Which would be better freedom-wise: Dell offering machines with a choice of Windows or Opensuse, or Dell offering machines with Windows only?
    4. Which is better freedom-wise: running Oracle on a Linux/OpenSolaris OS, or running Oracle on a Windows/OS X Server/HP-UX OS?
    If your answer to any of those questions is “they’re equally bad”, then you have a problem.
    Those people who insist all software must be Free play a useful role in increasing our freedom. But that role does not include abusing organizations like Dell, who are moving in the right direction, by engaging in “speculation” about how evil they could possibly be.

  10. mpt: Here’s your response.
    1. Which is better freedom-wise? Being murdered by the state by firing squad or being murdered by the state by hanging?
    2. Which is better freedom-wise? Suffering the torture of defying the dictator or quietly surrendering?
    3. I think you get the idea.
    4. Again, I think you get the idea.
    I think you have, once again, made an ass of yourself. You did not read my post, you did not read my prior response to your comment, and you will only read portions of this that you think will make your argument stronger.
    It is never okay to control another human being for profit. Those who engage in this behavior should not be rewarded. That’s pretty much the end of it.
    Until such time as we are granted freedom, we should take it ourselves (that’s where that codec install link comes in) as best we can. Sometimes that means using proprietary codecs, sometimes that means running non-free flash, sometimes that even means using the proprietary drivers. But that’s what WE have to do to get as free as we can. But here the users are the victims. Here the users should do everything in their power to damage the interests of the proprietary entities that are causing them to be less free. That means reverse-engineering drivers, that means cracking open the flash formats, that means slurping out proprietary encryption keys from non-free software and packaging it in a way that is useful.
    Sometimes we have to use this stuff to get things done. It is better not to do so, and it is never okay for these entities to attempt to control us like that. But in oppression you blame he oppressor not the oppressed.
    If you’re content to live with only half of your freedom then you probably won’t get very far in an argument with me or on my blog.

  11. I agree with everything in your last four paragraphs. The paragraph before those, of course, is entirely false. (If I hadn’t read your whole post to begin with, I wouldn’t have commented on it.)
    If you’re going to make an analogy between running a Linux OS with proprietary drivers, and “being murdered by the state by firing squad”, then again, you have a problem. It is by small, compromising steps such as the ones I described that people will start finding their way to freedom. First using Firefox and OpenOffice.org on Windows, then using the same programs on a Linux OS. First using Oracle on HP-UX, then Oracle on Linux, then PostgreSQL. First using proprietary drivers in Windows, then proprietary drivers in a Linux OS, then complaining to Nvidia that their lack of cooperation means their laptop can’t suspend+resume, then getting a video card for which free drivers are available. And so on. If you insist that people change everything all at once, they’ll conclude it’s too much effort, and they’ll stay trapped.
    This is not a new strategy: Richard Stallman used it when producing GNU. First using a proprietary compiler to write a Free compiler, then writing Free utilities for use on proprietary kernels, then using those same utilities on the Linux kernel when it became available. It’s not a matter of being “content to live with only half of your freedom”; it’s a matter of leading people to freedom one step at a time.

  12. mpt: I’m sorry, but you’re suggesting that it’s okay for people to control others for profit. That’s unacceptable, period. No matter what argument you make, you will not convince me otherwise.

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