LINUX BLOG SAFARI

What Free Software Does the World Need Now?

Halloween came and went last week, and we have yet to hear from anyone who wore a Tux costume. Sigh — looks like we’ll have to wait another year.

Generating much more excitement than the spooky Linuxy possibilities, it seems, was the grand landing of Intrepid Ibex, which caused a veritable flurry of reviews, comparisons and general Ubuntu-related discussion.

Indeed, more than 2,000 Diggs had been given to news of the big release by Friday, with other lengthy discussions devoted to reviews and Mark Shuttleworth’s comments about its styling and design.

Better Than Vista!

At least one review found that Ibex is slower than its predecessors, but another found that it still outperforms Vista by far — thank goodness for that!

Too bad, then, that profitability is still a distant dream for Canonical.

Still, things are looking good for Linux in general — so good, in fact, that the Linux Foundation‘s Jim Zemlin recently predicted that Linux may actually ship on more desktop PCs than Windows or Mac next year, thanks largely to its speedy boot time.

There we have it — so *next* year will be the Year of Linux on the Desktop … !

Ha! That’s funny. Seriously, though, Zemlin’s comments inspired widespread thought and discussion across the blogs, including the Linux Loop, Desktop Linux and Zemlin’s own. Of course, as is usually the case among Linux bloggers, a healthy dose of skepticism was clearly evident.

Not Bloody Likely?

“I may disagree here,” Monochrome Mentality blogger Kevin Dean told LinuxInsider. “The ‘instant-on’ experience certainly is being pushed for, but in the end, I think the same things that bind users to Windows today will bind them to a slowly booting Windows system.”

There are “a lot of Windows PCs that ship, and the sheer numbers alone make it a difficult proposition, even ignoring the end-user’s response to a non-Windows OS,” Dean added.

“My biggest problem with the conclusion is that I doubt instant-on will be mainstream until at least late 2009, if it catches on,” wrote Thomas Teisberg on the Linux Loop.

That Linuxy Versatility

On the other hand, “while there’s a little tongue-in-cheek, I suspect, this is an interesting development,” Slashdot blogger yagu told LinuxInsider. “I’d file it under the ‘more things using Linux than people realize’ category. But it is good news — it’s indicative of how versatile Linux is that BIOS vendors and others are choosing Linux for these kinds of technology tweaks.”

One result could be to give Linux more exposure in a mainstream setting, yagu added. “Maybe we need to find a way to talk about this more publicly … get people asking, ‘why, if the instant boot is a satisfactory experience for most computer tasks, wouldn’t Linux be satisfactory in a more full environment?'” he suggested. “Of course, then we have to answer that not-so-simple question — but it’s a start.”

If nothing else, the notion amplifies the fact that Windows is “neither nimble nor adaptable enough for these features,” yagu added. “It has a large footprint (bad for implementation) and is prohibitively expensive (bad for community) and proprietary (bad for contributions).”

What Free Software Next?

So, now it’s clear Linux is going to take over the desktop — perhaps sooner rather than later. What, then, does the world need in terms of more free software to go along with it?

That question was recently asked by none other than the Free Software Foundation, which then published its list of the highest-priority free software projects. Gnash, Coreboot and a free software replacement for Skype were the top three priorities on FSF’s list, which drew considerable controversy across the blogs.

“The FSF list includes a number of places where good proprietary software exists for Linux, but there are no good free software alternatives,” Teisberg noted on the Linux Loop. “These free software replacements are important, but I consider it more important to improve free software in cases where there are no good alternatives for Linux, even if those applications are not as commonly used.”

Right Idea, Wrong Goal

The goal should be “trying to get more people to run a free operating system, possibly while using some proprietary software on top of the OS, rather than trying to get existing Linux users to use more free software,” Teisberg added.

Among the projects on Teisberg’s own proposed list were good video editing software and improved compatibility between Office and Open Office.

“The free software list is just a demonstration that GNU needs to get its head out of academia and see what the real world is like,” Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider. “I’ll agree on the need for video editing, but the rest of that list is too far into the ‘lets replace this because it’s not free’ or only needed by developers and professors.”

Basic Needs

What do users really need? “Forget replacement BIOS or replacing software that mostly works on Linux,” Mack advised. “We still fall short on basic things that users need for day-to-day work.”

Top on Mack’s list? First, better network management: “How about network managers that don’t make you jump through hoops when you come across wireless with WPA?” he suggested. “How about some sort of way to make the wireless not start if the machine is already plugged into Ethernet? Better yet, how about not attempting DHCP on Ethernet if there is no cable or wireless connection?”

Better video drivers take second place on Mack’s list. “Drivers right now seem to be either slow or crap,” he noted. “Even in ATI’s case, where the documentation is available, there is still no 3D acceleration in the free drivers. This means that users get the fun choice between ‘buggy preempt unsafe steaming pile of fecal matter that always seems to lag behind kernel releases’ or ‘doesn’t do anything we expect of modern video cards.'”

‘A Serious Lack’

Others viewed the list from a different perspective.

“This list essentially epitomizes to me why Free Software as a movement is failing to make inroads with ‘regular people’,” Dean said. “Average people don’t care about the license of their software, and the fact that the FSF hasn’t overcome that shows a serious lack, I think.”

The Skype replacement idea struck Dean as particularly notable.

“Having once been a Free Software zealot, I pushed Jabber as the ‘free and easy’ alternative to the MSN Network, but the simple truth is that open networks are useless if people aren’t using them,” he said. “The FSF claims to not want a Skype-compatible client, but anything other than that doesn’t connect Free Software users to the rest of the world,” much of which is using Skype and “won’t stop until a better (not defined by the license of the software) alternative pulls them from it.”

‘A Sub-Par Reputation’

Such mistakes are what give the FOSS ecosystem “a reputation for being sub-par,” Dean charged. “I don’t think a quality service/product needs to be closed and restrictive, but it certainly has to be the first solution to a known problem,” the way Skype was.

“Rather than spend time replacing tools, the Free Software movement needs to create ‘in-demand’ tools and use that as a wedge to promote the ideas of free software rather than spending years and man-hours trying to re-invent the wheel,” he said.

“That there is an effort to provide all of these important products for free is laudable, but I would rather prioritize by market demand,” yagu said.

‘Lofty, but Misguided’

“Some of the demand indeed matches products listed on the priority list (for example, the Skype replacement and the video editing software), but I’d rather see more coordination and effort on establishing an effective market for selling these products,” he explained. “I know Richard Stallman dictates that all software be free, but in my opinion, the lines blur and some software starts looking like real product — product that I’m willing to pay for, and I suspect others are too.”

In short, “the free software community thinks everyone will just use free software, but human nature defies that logic; people are willing — even want — to pay for products,” yagu concluded. So, the FSF’s efforts “are lofty, but I think misguided.”

And on that note — things that are misguided — it’s with great sorrow that we must note the recent passing of the inspiring, entertaining and often surprisingly insightful Linux Hater’s blog. May its criticisms continue to make Linux better!

3 Comments

  • Mr Yagu states that ".. the free software community thinks everyone will just use free software, but human nature defies that logic; people are willing — even want — to pay for products, yagu concluded." and concludes that RMS is misguided. Well it seems that Mr Yagu is also somewhat misguided, in that he does not even understand the proper meaning of free software as defined by RMS and the Free Software Foundation. Time and time again RMS repeats that the free refers to the copyright of the code, e.g. the freedom to copy and alter the code, and pass it on to others. It does not mean free as in purchase price. Stallman does not object to people paying for software, but objects to paying for software that someone else then dictates what you can do with it afterwards.
    I have no objection to paying for software in principle, I have as yet been unable to find any worth buying. Its all either crippled, bug ridden, or non ergonomic, or usually a combination of all three.

  • I upgraded to Ubuntu 8.10 over the weekend. As usual, it did not work.

    My computer runs a Via chipset, not good for 3d, but the computer has been one of the few mainstream Ubuntu loaded boxes from Walmart, so it should have been tested.

    He did not manage to run the desktop for a graphics issue, and after some restarting, fooling around, I managed to start gdm manually, and taking it from there get it up and running again. Ubuntu takes, with the current approach, responsibility for a very wide range of software, that is not under its control.

    The point is, Ubuntu should fully support a standard external system for installing software (cfr linspire) and make sure its own house is in order.

    As 99 % of the computer and server tasks can be done by a limited standard set, those should be part of the core, and for the rest, keep them out.

    Nor windows nor mac have such a grip on what you do with your computer as a Linux distribution: they provide you with the binaries themselves.

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