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Freespire: A Linux Distro For When You Couldn't Care Less About Freedom
Monday, April 24 2006 @ 06:36 PM EDT

Here's something nauseating. Linspire has announced at the 4th Annual Desktop Linux Summit their latest "We'd like to make money from the community's free stuff without honoring community values" strategy. They hope you'll help them compromise by contributing to Freespire, which the article describes as a "community-driven distro" that includes proprietary software. Um...what community is that? More mangling of the language to pervert and confuse -- Free Software isn't about proprietary drivers, bub. Here's how they try to inspire you to sell out, from the Freespire website:
Freespire is a community-driven, Linux-based operating system that combines the best that free, open source software has to offer (community driven, freely distributed, open source code, etc.), but also provides users the choice of including proprietary codecs, drivers and applications as they see fit. With Freespire, the choice is yours as to what software is installed on your computer, with no limitations or restrictions placed on that choice. How you choose to maximize the performance of your computer is entirely up to you.

Ah, the mermaid's beguiling melody. "Think only about yourself. Think about all the fun you can have if you compromise. Think about convenience, not freedom, not ethics, not your neighbor. Don't think about the consequences."

You can be free by giving up your freedom. Right. They claim to be offering the best of free and open source, but in reality you get neither. Free Software wouldn't spit on this idea, frankly, and as for Open Source, proprietary codecs, drivers and applications are not Open Source or open in any way. So, it's a compromise, a kind of evolutionary hybrid freak baby. Just license from the proprietary closed source bullies and you can watch your DVDs on Linux without any further hassles. Neato, Linspire. Except for one detail: If I wanted proprietary, frankly, I'd just use Apple or even Windows over Linspire or "Free"spire, as they cynically named it. You will be able to get from the Linspire folks a version of "Free"spire without any proprietary applications, if you wish.

Say, what was in that Microsoft-Linspire secret settlement, anyway? Is this some kind of plot to kill off FOSS? Because it surely could.

Here are their noble goals:

The decision to include proprietary software in Freespire does not solely revolve around the end-user. Carmony outlined that Linspire hopes that the added functionality will be a bigger draw for developers outside of the Linux community to take another look at Linux as a tool they can use and develop for....

There is also the possible side effect of getting more development work done on open source versions of proprietary software featured in Freespire. "If you give users and developers a choice between the NVIDIA driver and an open source version of that same driver, and they discover that the proprietary version has better performance, that could spur the open source development team on," Carmony said.

In the long run, Linspire hopes that by introducing proprietary software now in a desktop Linux distribution, the ultimate goal of achieving more market share will be reached.

Ah. Market share. Of course. The "ultimate goal". As for that spurring-the-developer-on baloney, you know perfectly well the impact will be to drop the Open Source version instead. Ah, the mists are clearing. First, the closed source companies refuse to provide drivers for FOSS. The community figures out a way around the blockade, but it naturally isn't quite the same experience. How could it be? Then Freespire sets it up so you can compare the two, and if you care only about your short term practical gain, which do you choose? Do you think those companies will ever provide drivers for FOSS if you compromise like that?

If you take a look at Linspire's S-1 filed just after the settlement with Microsoft, you'll see they list Windows as their primary competitor, not Red Hat or SUSE. There's a significance to that. Part of what happened in that litigation was that Microsoft claimed then-named Lindows was distributing copyrighted Microsoft Windows Media technology without a license. The settlement agreement included that Lindows would rename itself Linspire, and they'd stop using those files and Microsoft agreed to grant Linspire "limited four-year, royalty-free licenses to certain Windows Media software components" to include in Linspire's products. And in "Free"spire, you can watch DVDs, but you have to cross their palm with silver first:

However, users will still have to pony up a few bucks (or download libdvdcss) to watch their DVDs on Linux. Freespire won't ship with software to allow DVD playback, though Carmony says users can buy it through Linspire's Click and Run (CNR) service.

See, this is what happens when proprietary folks who are not from the community show up prospecting for gold. They can't change their thinking, which is that they want to make money by hook or by crook. Freedom for you is the last thing on their minds. They know you want Open Source, so they'll do that, but the freedom part isn't on their radar at all. And if you help them, they will in time ruin everything. Frankly, I believe that may even be the plan.

Somebody may be hoping that we'll sell out so we don't have to put up with inconvenience, but selling out freedom for an iPod or to watch a certain movie...well, put it like that and you can see, it's not such a good deal for us, only for them. The ability to postpone gratification is one of the definitions of adulthood, and the proprietary folks, and the pseudo open companies that attach themselves to them like barnacles, hope we are not adults. I see Linspire as the mermaid who will pull freedom under the water, if you listen to their beguiling song.

The ironically named "Free"spire will be available in August, and as to why it's taken them so long to do "Free"spire, here's their thinking:

A free version of Linspire has been a long time in coming, Carmony said, but there's a reason why his company has waited until now to implement the project. Simply put, Linspire did not feel the market was ready for a community-driven distro that included proprietary software. Over the span of the company's lifetime, Carmony explained, the community's negative reaction to using proprietary software has softened quite a bit. He also feels that limiting features to promote software freedom for freedom's sake is actually eliminating choices for the end users.

They think they've seen enough members of the community willing to compromise the community's values that now this will work, in short. I hope it doesn't. If ever it was clear that Richard Stallman was right to argue that openness and pragmatism are no match for freedom, ethics and community values, today is the day.

Instead of pressuring nVidia and other companies to provide drivers for Linux, Freespire will just license the proprietary ones right now. What's the difference? You get to use the drivers, don't you? Well, if you'd like to know what could happen next if everyone goes that route, may I suggest you read "Linux in a binary world - a Doomsday scenario" by Arjan van de Ven, written last December and which you can find in the Linux-Kernel Archives:

Linux in a binary world

What if.. what if the linux kernel developers tomorrow accept that binary modules are OK and are essential for the progress of linux.

a hypothetical doomsday scenario by Arjan van de Ven

the primary assumption in this scenario is obviously not going to happen, but all assumptions that follow are based things that are true in some form or another, but of course the names of the "innocent" have been omitted.

On December 6th, 2005 the kernel developers en mass decide that binary modules are legally fine and also essential for the progress of linux, and are as such a desirable thing. At first, the development process of the linux kernel doesn't change much other than a bunch more symbols getting exported, and EXPORT_SYMBOL_GPL removed.

Within 3 weeks, distributions like Red Hat Enterprise Linux and SuSE's SLES distribution start to include a wide variety of binary modules on their installation CDs. Debian renounces this and stays pure to the cause, as do other open distributions like Fedora Core and openSuSE.

The enterprise distros don't just NVidias and ATIs modules, but include all the OEM vendor "fakeraid" modules and the various wireless, winmodem, windsl and TCP-offloading modules as well,. However, unlike NVidia and ATI, most of the binary driver vendors do not provide their drivers in a "glue layer" source form, they provide only the final binaries.

Several hardware vendors that have been friendly to open source so far, see their competitors ship only binary drivers, and internally they start to see pressure to also keep the IP private, and they know that they haven't used some features of the hardware because their legal department didn't want that IP in the public. As a result they perceive their competitors binary drivers to be at a theoretical advantage, or at least their own drivers could be at an advantage if they were also closed, because they then can use those few extra features to be ahead of the competition. By February 1st 2006, about half the hardware vendors have refocused their internal linux driver efforts to create value adds in the binary drivers they will release in addition to the open drivers that already exist. Some vendors even openly stopped supporting the open drivers because they don't have enough resources to do both.

March 1st. All the new server lines from the top tier hardware vendors come out with the next generation storage and network hardware. This hardware comes with binary drivers for the last 2 versions of RHEL and SLES distributions, and these drivers are already integrated into the February refreshes of these distributions. One of the storage vendors releases their driver in a .o + glue layer format, the others doesn't bother and only releases binaries for these two distributions. Two of the network card manufacturers release an update for their open source driver to minimally support the new cards, the others don't. Consumer hardware is largely unaffected; most consumer chipsets standardize on AHCI for SATA storage and keep the existing feature sets in networking chipsets.

April 1st. 2 of the consumer chipset makers have upgraded their chipsets to include a new and exciting audio feature that enables enhanced DVD playback, but unfortunately this caused them to deviate from the 'standard' i810 audio hardware interface. One of them releases a binary driver for a handful of distributions, the other doesn't consider linux relevant for the desktop and hasn't bothered to do a linux driver yet.

May 1st All of the server class hardware you can buy requires at least one but usually 2 or 3 binary modules to operate. While some of these modules are available in blob+glue form, several are only available for RHEL3, RHEL4 and SLES9 and sometimes the newly released SLES10. Linux users will have the choice of 4 kernels for these servers at this time, but no hope to run a kernel on these servers. The Ubuntu people are very upset and are trying hard, with varying success, to get drivers available for their distribution. Due to this lobby success, about 50% of the servers can be used with the Ubuntu kernel as well.

June 1st. A huge flamewar, the fourth on this topic since January, happens on the linux-kernel mailing list. Users and some developers are demanding that the kernel adopts either the existing RHEL or the SLES module ABI. Investigation shows that this is not possible, and the thread turns into a discussion on designing a new ABI versus freezing the existing one. Many kernel developers feel that the existing ad-hoc ABI is not suitable for freezing and that a new ABI and API, designed such that it can be kept stable more easily is the way to go, while others say that this takes too much time and then won't help for the next 2 years until RHEL and SLES have adopted this ABI, and at least demand an immediate freeze of the ABI so that the upcoming RHEL5 release maybe uses it, and thus gets drivers written for it. Users generally use RHEL or SLES for production servers, and clones like CENTOS which have released binary compatible kernels.

July 1st. It's increasingly hard to run linux without binary modules on most new consumer PCs. While a year earlier people would have to give up 3D acceleration for this often, now even 2D doesn't work without binary drivers, nor does networking (both fixed wire or wireless) or sound. For half the machines there is not enough linux support available at all, while 20% use ndiswrapper like translation layers to run the Windows sound and networking drivers. The Debian project, unable to run on most machines now, is losing massive amounts of users to Ubuntu and Ubuntu-Debian hybrids. Debian-legal and various other project lists are impossible to read by people not interested in this particular flame-topic. Most of the vendors who kept their open source drivers at least somewhat updated have basically stopped doing so.

July 14th. Linus declares the kernel ABI stable but also splits off a 2.7 kernel and declares that the 2.8 kernel will have a different ABI. In practice, only people who held on to their old machines can assist in the 2.7 development, since none of the vendor drivers, not even the ones who still have a blob+glue construct care about the 'too rapid' moving development tree.

August 21st. A serious security flaw is found in the 2.6 series, which turns out to be a design flaw in a key sysfs API. Fixing this flaw would require to break the module ABI and practically all modules out there, while not fixing this flaw leaves a potential roothole open. A quick fix is made available under a CONFIG_ option, but users who need binary drivers have no choice but leave their systems vulnerable. Flamewars on lkml flare up again that say Linus made a mistake in freezing the existing ABI rather than creating a new one designed to be frozen. 2.7 development has mostly stagnated and a patch is proposed to have 2.7 have the 2.6 ABI again, reverting several key VM subsystem improvements and Ingo's realtime patches.

August 26th. A precooked exploit for the security hole hits bugtraq, and has been sighted in the wild as used by various rootkits. A php exploit uses it to go from the httpd user to root. Users are putting pressure on module vendors to release modules for the new ABI, and several actually do so in the next three weeks. Others, mostly in the consumer area, say that the hardware in question is no longer sold and that they aren't going to spend any time or effort on drivers for it.

Now this scenario may sound unlikely to you. And thankfully the main assumption (the December 6th event) is extremely unlikely.

However, and this unfortunately, several of the other "leaps" aren't that unlikely. In fact, some of these results are likely to happen regardless; witness the flamewars on lkml about breaking module API/ABI. Witness the ndiswrapper effect of vendors now saying "we support linux because ndiswrapper can use our windows driver". I hope they won't happen. Some of that hope will be idle hope, but I believe that the advantages of freedom in the end are strong enough to overcome the counter forces.

In response, Andrea Arcangeli wrote:

I am convinced that the only way to stop the erosion is to totally stop buying hardware that has only binary only drivers (unless you buy it to create an open source driver or to reverse engineer the binary only driver of course! ;).

For example if a laptop has an embedded wirless or 3d card not supported by open source drivers, buy a laptop without any wireless card or without 3d, instead of buying one with the not-supported hardware without using it (I can guarantee there are still laptops that requires no 3d binary only drivers and no wirless cards drivers, even for the winmodems you can choose the ones supported by alsa). We literally have to refuse buying those cards with binary only kernel drivers.

Every time we buy a piece of hardware with binary only drivers we admit that the binary only driver vendors are doing the right choice for their stockholders. Only when we refuse to buy it, we can make a slight difference. When we don't buy hardware without open source drivers, we send the message to the shareholders that the management is causing them a loss.

Linspire invited Rob Enderle to be one of the speakers at their conference. I think that says it all.

I know some of you will point out that other distros also include proprietary applications and drivers. My Mandriva has a separate CD just for them, in fact. But they don't push them as a plus. They provide them for those who don't mind using them while we wait for a better solution, but they don't base their business on the idea that Linux needs proprietary stuff and we should all stop striving for a completely free distribution that does everything we need and be "practical" in order to gain market share. I hate to break it to the prospectors for gold amonst us, but market share isn't at the heart of what the real FOSS community is about, and if you want those guys to code for you, you'd better cut it out.

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