It’s amazing how much I’ve learned since starting this blog.
Last week I talked, in the "Fire and Ice" post, about how Firefox is not wholly Free Software. In that post, I detailed the attempts by Debian and Ubuntu to exclude the non-free parts of the package, so that they had a Free Software distribution. This week I have learned about a new GNU/Linux distribution, sponsored by the "Free Software Foundation", that aims to only include 100% Free Software. That project is gNewSense, which released version 1.0 on November 2nd, and it removes the non-free parts of Ubuntu.
I have been quite shocked to find out that the standard Linux kernel contains binary-only "blobs", to enable the use of certain hardware. This seems clearly to be in violation of the GPL, and is unquestionably not Free.
gNewSense have created a distribution based on Ubuntu, but they have removed these blobs from the kernel. They have also removed the restricted repositories, and they do not use Canonical’s proprietary Launchpad system for bugtracking, translation, etc. It should be noted that Canonical state that they intend to release Launcpad as Free Software in the future.
This is important for those of us who believe in software Freedom, and who use GNU/Linux because of that Freedom and not because of the price. I am really quite concerned that I hadn’t heard about these "blobs" before now, and it seems that they are tolerated for the sake of popularity. Popularity, of course, is important to increase the clout of Free Software, but sacrificing Freedom in the process is hypocritical and does not encourage hardware manufacturers to participate in that Freedom.
Of course, if you remove those blobs, then some hardware won’t work. It becomes necessary to research a purchase before you make it. Wireless cards seem to be the most problematic. However, this has been an issue with GNU/Linux for years. I always research hardware compatibility before buying. Of course, this has improved in recent years, but I’m disapointed to find out these blobs are why.
If you would like some resources to research compatibility, have a look at the links at the end of this post.
- Ubuntu is Debian-based. Debian was probably the closest to being a 100% Free GNU/Linux distribution.
- Ubuntu addresses many of the criticisms directed towards Debian. It is desktop-oriented, easy to use (even for new users), and is released often, with the latest software versions. In fact, Ubuntu could possibly be criticised for sticking too rigidly to their frequent release schedule.
- Debian is renowned for being one of the most stable operating systems in existence, and Ubuntu inherits a lot of that stability.
- Ubuntu is very popular, which should lead to rapid recognition of gNewSense.
The newly released gNewSense 1.0 is based on Ubuntu 6.06. It’s a shame that it’s behind, but it’s understandable considering it’s basically been a two-man band. I like Ubuntu 6.10, especially Upstart, and I hope they can release gNewSense based on that version soon. In future, I hope they can work in Ubuntu unstable until the Ubuntu release, which should reduce the lag.
I have read that Debian plan to address the issue of the Linux blobs, and that should filter through to Ubuntu. It remains to be seen what role gNewSense would have at that stage.
I hope that gNewSense is a resounding success, and I certainly intend to move to it from Ubuntu. Hopefully it will stir people into action, experience heavy development, influence the removal of the Linux blobs, and prove the power of Free Software.
- gNewSense Wiki
- FSF gNewSense press release
- gNewSense original press release
- A good review of gNewSense, KnoLinuxGuy (I don’t agree with his stance on compromise for functionality, but it highlights the issues)
- gNewSense screenshot walkthrough
Hardware Compatibility Links: