The co-founders of gNewSense, Paul O’Malley & Brian Brazil, very kindly agreed to give an interview. As usual, it was conducted by email.
It’s great to have their two differing perspectives. Between them, they provide a balance that is probably responsible for the success of gNewSense. Their passion is also quite evident.
Can you describe your backgrounds?
POM: Currently working as an IT Manager for what we call a SME company here (Small Medium Enterprise). I started using Free Software in 1994, I stopped using a popular desktop as my personal desktop at that time.
BB: I’m currently working as a Systems Administrator.
I graduated recently (2006) with a degree in Computer Science.
Can you tell us what gNewSense is?
POM: A Free as in Freedom GNU/Linux Distribution.
BB: A project to produce a fully free version of Ubuntu, and to allow others to do the same.
Why did you start gNewSense?
POM: In Nov ‘05 Richard Stallman and Mark Shuttleworth were in Tunis. They both spoke of gnubuntu, however both meant something that the other could not mean. As a Ubuntu member, I thought, hang on a sec that is a great idea. I nearly dropped the idea but one particular person in Texas kept prodding me.
I asked Brian for help, he kindly agreed and so began an adventure. As the idea developed, it became obvious to us that to make the distro "FSF Acceptable" several steps had to be taken. Not pointing at none Free Software, not using non free tools and, very important on the list, we needed a punny name.
BB: I was interested in the idea of providing what at the time was ubuntu-libre as I always want all the source available to me. Creating a distribution is also a black art, and I hoped to partially fix that by documenting and scripting all the steps.
Where does the name come from?
POM: People using NU for New and GNU it was too much of a pun to miss. GNU - Sense
It came from a chat Brian and I had about gpg keys and RMS’s one came into the conversation.
BB: The name originated as Gnusiance as a reference to RMS’s GPG key, but was later changed to gNewSense to also capture the New Sense of the distribution and as a pun on GNU.
At what point did the Free Software Foundation get involved?
BB: A few days after the 0.85 release, they contacted us. Sometime after that they provided hardware and hosting.
What exactly is the FSF’s involvement? Do they pay you, as individuals, to work on gNewSense?
BB: We’re not paid by the FSF. They provide hardware, hosting and related support.
Can you tell us how many gNewSense downloads there have been?
BB: As a very conservative estimate, 6000. However this doesn’t include mirrors.
Can you explain why binary blob Linux drivers are an issue?
POM: They rob users of their freedom to interact with the hardware fully, they may contain bugs that are not fixed for months. I believe that in some really extreme cases outside of the GNU/Linux field you can not get any source for the code that people run on their systems.
I think Free Software has a window of opportunity there.
BB: They are code which the manufacturer can change, but I can’t.
Do you think that user-complacency has contributed to the problem?
POM: User complacency and in some cases a lack of knowledge. When it comes to complacency, those users should say to themselves, just because one person puts their hand in the fire should they be copied.
How much hardware is affected by the removal of binary blobs?
POM: At this point if I may, I wish to give into what is said to be a national trait, that of answering a question with a question. So I wish to turn the thinking in the question on its head, and say if your hardware reacts badly to gNewSense, is it time for you to examine what the vendor is doing to you? If they offer some piece of hardware in exchange for your freedom and then they don’t trust you to run that hardware correctly. They don’t trust you, why should you trust them? As you don’t have the specifications could it be the case that they are pretending that commodity is really something luxurious? How can you know that?
Mostly network cards (wired and wireless), some SCSI controllers and sound cards. We have many reports of gNewSense working perfectly, including on some laptops.
Why did you choose to base gNewSense on Ubuntu?
POM: The bug fixing that went into its release and the Long Term Support format, which gives us room to be slow on the take up.
BB: Ubuntu LTS is a good base with an active community, and is also very user friendly.
Is gNewSense likely to move away from Ubuntu, as a base?
POM: Not in the short term, and it would depend on the size of the community and their energy. If it was it would most likely head off in
its own direction, with the same goals.
BB: This might happen in the distant future when the project is bigger. It’s more likely that we’d become a seperate distribution at that point rather than switching to Debian.
You state that your goal is to create a fully Free distribution. Is there a lot of software, other than the kernel, on which you are having to work to achieve this goal?
POM: No, as we don’t include software that is None Free intentionally. The layout of the repositories upstream help here.
The kernel is the hardest part, but certain aspects of software such as Firefox also cause issues.
What is your position on software that is designed to work with MP3, and other similarly patented formats, that has traditionally been excluded by the likes of Debian?
POM: We leave it out. In some places to include those materials would be illegal, so easier to not do it from the start. We have no right to compromise any user, or ask any user to compromise themselves.
BB: While we agree that software patents are bad, we specifcally take no stance on the mp3 issue.
What sort of release schedule are we likely to see?
POM: Depends but a point release on something like a four month basis might be reasonable. This is the view from where we stand today. It is a good vista, unlike some vistas we could mention.
BB: We currently release when there have been changes to Builder that significantly improve things. There’s currently no set schedule, but once a quarter seems likely.
Is there likely to be a KDE version of gNewSense?
POM: Yes, thanks to the tremendous work of Chris Fernandez.
BB: There will be a KDE variant with the next release.
Do you hope to include the Upstart sysvinit replacement in one of the next few releases?
POM: No for the reasons Brian states.
BB: No, we’re currently sticking to Dapper so this doesn’t affect us.
You have a very distinctive login screen. One of the most attractive in GNU/Linux distributions. Do you plan to create a
similarly distinctive look throughout the distribution?
POM: We would like to. If people would do what we asked on the list we might manage to get something good together.
BB: This depends on what artwork the community provides to us. It’d certianly be a great thing, but is not related to the main aims of the distro which is the issue of freedom.
We have announced a photo contest for the images for the next release.
What do you think is the best way to persuade hardware manufacturers to either provide Free Software drivers, or the appropriate documentation to create our own?
POM: The most practical thing people can do is put pressure on the retail end of the market. They are closest to the purchaser.
To do this, tell the supplier what you want, and WHY!
What do you expect for gNewSense in 2007?
POM: Growth, but that is not hard given where we were last year.
BB: New releases, multiarch support and the rise of several distributions that use Builder.
Sun has talked about releasing OpenSolaris under the GPL. What effect do you think this could have on the Linux kernel? Could it help with the driver situation?
POM: It would lead to a very interesting situation. It would be more interesting if it was done after the release of GPLv3, and it was GPLv3 or later. This would make one of the Sun stacks so attractive to Free Software people it would be unreal. In addition anything that has "GPLv2 or later" could be used on an OpenSolaris system. How is that for low hanging fruit?
What has been the most difficult thing in creating and maintaining gNewSense?
POM: Finding Brian, and then "what he says".
BB: Tracking down what’s causing weird failures. For instance the installer will crash out if the restricted kernel modules aren’t available, and weird undocumented things happen if /etc/ls.so.nohwcap exists.
What has been the most enjoyable?
POM: Working with people on it, seeing it getting attention.
Of which gNewSense achievement are you most proud?
POM: The idea of steps repeatable documented and to be available to others was the most important aspect in the design. To accomplish this we have Builder.
BB: Builder, as this gives anyone the ability to produce a distribution and automatically maintain it.
What is the best way for people to help gNewSense?
POM: Join us, on IRC or our mailing list, do some documentation on the wiki, fix a bug, help if you have hardware with AMD64 or PPC. Explain to those who do not know what the dangers of none Free Software are.
BB: Our biggest need is for developers and documentation. We need to add more features such as multiarch, and make sure our users can get the help they need from our website.
I’d like to thank Paul and Brian for their excellent answers, and for their work in creating a truly Free GNU/Linux. I’m looking forward to seeing its development.
- An Ubuntu gNewSense
- What is “Free Software”?
- Free as in Freedom: book review
- Young Upstart
- Fire and Ice
- The interviews