On Ubuntu…

Okay… so we’ve had this discussion going on for a long time. In the BadVista mailing lists Ubuntu has taken quite a beating due to its default inclusion of non-free hardware drivers. Well, that and the use of the words “open source” where the words “free software” are more appropriate.
Well, I’ve been a Kubuntu hacker since December of 2006, and I am not tickling Mark Shuttleworth’s brain, or reading the minds of the management at Canonical. But I do know that everything I’ve received as a developer on the Kubuntu project leads me to believe that Ubuntu does have some very serious love for free software, but there’s a lot of “open source” to be found there as well.
So I’ll rant on two ideas I have on how Ubuntu could really solve some of the ethical concerns from the community, and how the community should reconsider its position on Ubuntu. Before folks call me inconsistent on this point–I have argued both sides several times–let’s remember that we’re all still learning here, and we’re all still figuring out what strategy will make us more free and meet our own needs. You can call my inconsistent or a hypocrite, and you’d be right, so I’ll just go ahead and get that out of the way.
First, let’s talk non-free drivers. I know this is a powder-keg, and it seems as though everybody’s got a very strong opinion it. Let me ask you though… is it Ubuntu’s fault that these drivers are not free software? Did Ubuntu or Canonical insist on licensing them as non-free software? I doubt it. Actually, I think Ubuntu would be ecstatic if nVidia, ATI, and Broadcom (to name a few) called them up tomorrow and offered to give them specs or free software drivers. I sincerely believe that.
So then, what is Ubuntu guilty of in this situation? Including the drivers, right? Well, why do you think they included the drivers? Do you think they’re making money from ATI or nVidia to include these drivers? I don’t. I think they’re actually catching a lot of crap for including them, but that in the best interest of the users who bought hardware that does not allow for a fully free system they’re accommodating a large audience of previously non-free people who can now be more free. There’s the argument of freedom of choice and all that, yadda yadda yadda. Whatever.
If you know that nVidia is non-free, and you buy it anyway, then you are supporting a company that is against your freedom. End of story on hat one. But if you’re Mr. Smith who bought this sweet laptop, and later found out that he could have more freedom with his computer, and then after the fact realizes that it has a non-free graphics card in it, that’s not his fault. He didn’t know anything about software freedom before, and he doesn’t have the cash to upgrade to a machine that does support a fully-free environment. Have you looked at the prices of a tweaked out lappy these days? They’re certainly not free, and you can’t just swap out the video card. Besides, nVidia already made their money, so it’s no further support to them by using it.
All this to say that it is nVidia’s fault and ATI’s fault and Broadcom’s fault that these drivers are non-free. Mr. Smith will know not to buy from fascists later, but this time around he’s pretty much screwed. Let’s not blame Ubuntu for nVidia’s crimes. But there is something that I feel Ubuntu could do to help things out a little bit.
Offer a choice. I know that it’s simple to just not activate the non-free modules or to purge them, but I don’t even want that rubbish on my computer to start with because I do not agree with their license agreement. So what choice would I like to see? I’m glad you asked. I’d like to see two ISOs for every Ubuntu flavor. One that meets Mr. Smith’s needs with his non-free hardware, and one that meets my needs as a user who wants a completely free system.
I know that there’s talk of a GNUbuntu or FSF-approved flavor of Ubuntu, but I don’t even think Canonical should waste the marketing money on that. I think we should just have “Kubuntu-free,” “Ubuntu-free,” “Edubuntu-free,” and “Xubuntu-free.” In a perfect world, the free versions would be the default ISOs (e.g. Ubuntu and Ubuntu-nonfree rather than Ubuntu and Ubuntu-free), but I’ll take what I can get.
All that said, I am 100% the Ubuntu fanboy. I’ve been using Kubuntu for the better half of a year and there’s not much in the way of going back for me. Ubuntu is an excellent distribution, and Kubuntu does some insanely cool things to further KDE. There are plenty of folks criticizing Ubuntu because they want to see it fail and something else succeed. I criticize Ubuntu because I think it’s a great project, and there is always room for improvement.
Okay, I’m done ranting for now. Feel free to disagree.

8 Replies to “On Ubuntu…”

  1. [rant x2]As a gamer I’m really not interested in this 100% free non-sense, I need performance (and 3d acceleration) and the nv driver just isn’t offering that.
    So of course I want to install the nvidia drivers after all I didn’t spent a lot of money on my graphics card to not get 3d acceleration.
    If Ubuntu provides them for me all the better.
    I get quite annoyed at those people that feel like Ubuntu shouldn’t, to me they can take their 100% open and free campaign elsewhere.[/rant]
    Now people will probably think I’m anti open source and free software, but in contrary I rather enjoy it and contribute here and there.
    Gosh this comment went completely nowhere, oh well shared my view 🙂

  2. I think Canonical (with the money and hopefully pressure from Dell’s market position) should invest in the reverse engineering efforts; Nouveau ( http://nouveau.freedesktop.org ) and r300. Then there will be real pressure on nVidia and ATI because no distros will even think of shipping their binary drivers.
    LT: binary drivers have an avalanche of licensing, security (nVidia driver root hole; one driver portarys Linux’s security as a “myth”), suspend/hibernate problems (ATI hadn’t fixed this FOR A YEAR!!!!), and CANNOT be fixed except by the underfunded-and-usually-staffed-by-1-employee ATI or nVidia driver development houses. Do you really want an overworked employee to have his hidden, sloppy, code running as root on your system? Would you run a web browser as root yourself?
    Free drivers don’t have those issues. I’ve never had an issue hibernating with my ATI 7200 (supported when ATI let out drivers specs and hired Tungsten Graphics) or my ATI Mobility, supported by r300 hackers. They worked OUT OF THE BOX, period.

  3. Also, LT,

    As a gamer I’m really not interested in this 100% free non-sense, I need performance (and 3d acceleration) and the nv driver just isn’t offering tha

    nv is NOT a free driver. It is obfuscated code that is deliberately crippled to be 2d-only can only be maintained by nVidia employees who have access to the specs. Nouveau is the free driver, and it doesn’t even BASE off of nv. It bases off of a reverse engineered nVidia Haiku/BeOS driver.

  4. Good points of course, didn’t know nv was still maintained by nvidia.
    I dunno, perhaps a free driver like nouveau would be better but it’ll take time to mature. In fact I’ve been following those regular newsletters somewhat.
    What I’m saying is that regardless of those efforts at the moment I have no option but to install these drivers. Hopefully as Ubuntu continues to grow and with the new Dell deal pressure could be applied to the big driver companies. I hope they’d listen, but at the moment I’m not very optimistic.

  5. Just another question, if the nv driver isn’t a free driver than why isn’t the full nvidia driver supplied? Something to do with compatibility I guess, legacy cards for example?

  6. I’m actually quite happy with the current implementation of non-free drivers. In Dapper and Edgy, I had to go to their sites and grab the latest video drivers, install them, then tweak xorg.conf and keep my fingers crossed. Anyone that’s done this for an ATI card knows what a pain it can be.
    I’d rather have all my drivers be open source, but they’re not. Until I can enjoy fully functional open source drivers, I’ll take the working proprietary ones over the handicapped ones any day.
    I love open source software and what it stands for, but I also believe that there is a place for non-free software as well. We just need to find the right balance. I personally think that software for functionality (drivers, browsers, office suites) should be open source. Entertainment software, however, should have the choice of shipping their product as open or closed source.
    The gaming market is huge, and is probably the biggest reason younger people are anti-Linux. I use my machines for work and the occasional game here and there, and from my experience, most games that work on both Linux and Windows actually run better under Linux. As Linux takes more of the desktop market-share, we’ll be seeing a bigger push for Linux gaming, and it will need to accept closed source software.
    What about Joost? Should it be released as completely open source? No way. They’re delivering copyrighted content and paying for it by showing ads. If the project was open source, we could easily make an ad-free client. Then they lose that revenue, can’t pay the licensing fees, lose all their content, and then the whole project flops.
    Also, please stop saying that companies like ATI and nVidia are “against my freedom”. I don’t have to use their drivers if I don’t want to. If they made it impossible to use anything but their proprietary drivers, then yes, they would be taking away my freedom. I really do wish they’d GPL their driver code though. Oh well, I guess that freedom thing works both ways.

  7. Let’s make sure we’re using the word “Free Software” here. Open Source allows for “binary blobs,” where our real goal is freedom and not code.
    As far as gaming goes, that’s a tough one to get into. Most computer games (both PC and console) are 100% proprietary. This is not really okay with me. Yeah, I play console games just like many others, but the fact that these systems are proprietary is really not okay with me. We really need to find a player who is willing to make Free Software games.
    Let’s just make sure that we’re valuing freedom, not just beating up on politically unpopular companies.
    ATI, nVidia, Broadcom, Microsoft, Electronic Arts, and all the rest would be welcomed with open arms (and make a killing) if they were willing to respect freedom.
    I’m also pretty sure that if ATI released free software drivers they could even get a photo of Richard Stallman and Peter Brown adding ATI to the FSF-approved hardware database.

  8. “…most games that work on both Linux and Windows actually run better under Linux.”
    So very true, in windows games tend to lock up mysteriously and that hardly ever happens in linux.
    The chances a major proprietary game producers will make games for free I don’t really see happening for a long time. There’s too much money to be made, I’d rather they’d make games cheaper with less DRM and provide free content after release (where appropriate).
    Instead I think it’d be better to create free games from scratch. The modding community in most games are a good example of free content. And there is a lot of that for most games.
    I do dislike bonus/expansion packs that are provided for cash, i.e.: oblivion, dawn of war, BF2.

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