Not Just Free -- Really, Really Free - InformationWeek

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8/5/2008
03:26 PM
Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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Not Just Free -- Really, Really Free

How free does Linux need to be? As free as possible, or so goes the philosophy behind a number of Linux distributions that strip out everything that isn't wholly untethered by IP restrictions.

How free does Linux need to be? As free as possible, or so goes the philosophy behind a number of Linux distributions that strip out everything that isn't wholly untethered by IP restrictions.

The idea is vaguely similar to a "respin" of an existing distribution. Take the source code for a common distro -- Ubuntu and Fedora, for instance -- and strip out all the stuff from the kernel and the repositories that have some kind of encumbrance. (Firmware for devices without source code is one example of stuff that's removed.) The end result isn't intended to be a fully featured distribution, just guaranteed that you won't have any stuff that isn't completely unrestricted. gNewSense is one such distro; linux-libre is another, and there are many more out there as well.

Why do this? One major reason: to make it easy to create new distributions that don't have to be "cleaned" ahead of time, especially if they're going to be used for something other than a desktop distro. The other reason is to appeal to those who want to work with a system that has nothing of questionable provenance in it. The latter is more ideological; the former is more practical.

I suspect libre-style distributions (one widely used term for these distros) are going to get that much more attention now that we're starting to see signs of commercial Linux aimed at consumers taking off. If there are people out there paying $20 for a boxed copy of Linux that includes unfree elements -- e.g., DVD decryption -- that's something to distinguish yourself from all the more aggressively. It's also a way to build an argument for hardware creators to supply unrestricted firmware for their creations, so they can be included in a broader range of distributions.

I also don't see the libre distributions overtaking the mainline Linux distros -- and frankly, I don't think it's required. Libre work is a complement to more "mainstream" Linux work, not a replacement, in much the same way Linux itself (on the desktop, at least) hasn't eclipsed Windows or even the Mac but represents an alternative to all of the above. The people who want Linux to "just work" with their videos or Flash-powered Web sites can always go and pick up the non-libre versions. I suspect this may come to be at least as important a distinguishing factor for Linux editions as the distribution per se, especially if it means trade-offs in functionality vs. freedom.

I have to say, I still think the whole speech/beer metaphor needs an upgrade. The other week while chatting with folks at OSCON, I quipped: Maybe we should say "free as in free movie passes, vs. free as in Free Nelson Mandela". Given that Mandela has been free for quite a while now, maybe that metaphor doesn't quite work either. But you get the idea.

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