There's a rising chorus in the land- "Linux needs proprietary
codecs and drivers, or it's dead as a doornail! Proprietary
multimedia 3D bling is the road to Freedom! Sacrifice a little
freedom now to get more freedom later!"
This is a strange song. It was sung first by fans of Linspire.
Now it's Ubuntu. The idea is that bundling all manner of proprietry
binary drivers and multimedia codecs, and having 3D
special-effects-desktops is necessary to further the cause of Free
Software. The plan is these will attract huge steaming wads of
users. Then when the huge steaming wads of users attain a certain
critical mass, somehow all that proprietary guff will become Free,
and joy will fill the land.
They are right about one thing- bundling all these things will
make Linspire and Ubuntu attractive to more users, because not
everyone is interested in free-as-in-freedom, or they have needs
that are not met by Free software. So the result will be more
people using Linspire and Ubuntu. Where are these users coming
from? If they are attracting Windows users and causing them to
fling Windows into the burn barrel and never ever use it again, I
say huzzah and hurrah! The drinks are on me! If I were Queen of the
Internet I would wave my Scepter of Power and kick off every single
Windows PC. No exceptions. I'm tired of paying the price for all
those trivially-easily-infected machines ruining the Internet and
costing the rest of us mass money. I'm tired of Microsoft locking
up the market and taking away customer choice. If it weren't for
Free and open source software, we would have zero choices. OK, so
five flavors of Vista = choice, sorry.
But the details of this plan are vague. How will embracing
non-Free code will result in more Free code? It could be that
filling Linux with proprietary bling could be a winning strategy
for Free software, though I think it will result it hordes of folks
who just want a free ride. But instead of arguing endlessly about
it, which is entertaining and fun, I decided to see if it was
possible to have a 100% Free Linux desktop with all the multimedia
goodies. And I learned that yes, it is.
100% Free Linux With Goodies
Both Fedora and Debian have always had a policy of including only
Free/Open source software. Users who want non-FOSS packages can
easily get them from alternative repositories; they're just a click
away. This permits users to easily control what goes on their
Then there is gNewSense. I know, many people mock and criticize
it. But they have not tried it. gNewSense is Ubuntu with all
non-Free code stripped out, and they really mean all of it,
including binary kernel blobs necessary to run common hardware.
There are no alternative repositories containing non-Free software.
Users can still install whatever they want, just like on any Linux;
they'll just have to work a little harder.
Hardware support in Linux has grown phenomenally, and there are
native drivers for all kinds of devices. But if you want FOSS
drivers, your choices are limited. Don't blame Linux for this.
There's a whole huge community of developers and a giant FOSS
codebase available for any hardware manufacturer who wants to take
advantage of it. The welcome mat is always out. But as long as
Linux users continue to purchase hardware that requires proprietary
drivers, where is their incentive to change?
Still, you can put together a good-quality 100% Free desktop
system. For wireless networking, Ralink and Realtek both make
chipsets with GPL drivers and no binary kernel blobs. Several ATI
video cards have GPL 3D drivers. You can play encrypted DVDs on
your Linux box with the GPL libdvdcss. There are many GPL audio
players, including mp3 players. ffmpeg and other FOSS programs play
and encode virtually all video formats.
The problems with multimedia playback and encoding are not
software licenses or a lack of software- it's patent encumbrances
and DMCA restrictions. Which makes these primarily a problem for
United States citizens, and the rest of the world laughs at us.
What about laptops, PDAs, and other devices? I don't know-
readers who do know are invited to post about them.
The bottom line is it's not necessary to sacrifice freedom for
usability, and you can even have bling. We have meeelyuns of
non-Free choices in the computing world. But not so many Free
choices, and I sure do hate to see them decrease.
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