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.