Perhaps GNOME and Unity developers might dispute Phoronix's figures. Yet it is worth noting that both Phoronix's results and any that GNOME and Unity might have gleaned from testing are, if anything, skewed toward more experienced users who are more likely to participate in surveys and testing and certainly more likely to know how to install proprietary drivers.
By comparison, newer users are probably more likely to stay with the free drivers available during installation, not because they are free software supporters (probably they have never heard of the cause), but because they are unaware of alternatives. If anything, the desktops that have trouble running GNOME 3 or Unity are probably higher than the Phoronix survey suggests for this reason.
Yet even accepting the Phoronix figures, what happened to designing for the lowest common denominator? Obviously, support cannot be maintained indefinitely, and no one expects, for instance, such mainstream desktops to work on 486s. Still, when over a quarter of users either cannot run a desktop or might have problems doing so, then surely legacy support has been slashed prematurely.
In addition, there is an inconsistency in two major Linux/FOSS projects making decisions that encourage the use of proprietary drivers. Everyone in FOSS knows that many people use proprietary drivers, but the official position of major distributions has generally been to install with free drivers, and leave the use of proprietary ones to the individual conscience. Some distros, like Fedora, will not even have the proprietary ones in their package repositories.
Now, though, by defaulting to Unity, Ubuntu has shifted from leaving the decisions about proprietary drivers to individuals toward pressuring users to use them. The same will be true in Fedora 15, which, with Ubuntu defaulting to Unity, is about to become the major GNOME 3 distribution. In the rush to provide the latest innovations, distros that package GNOME 3 or Unity risk throwing away the principles they are based on.
True, not everyone is a dedicated free software user who will refuse proprietary drivers regardless of the inconvenience or cost. The Phoronix figures prove that. But if the point of FOSS is not to develop a completely free desktop, then what is it? Encouraging the use of proprietary drivers seems a strangely backward step.
Whether you are talking technology or licenses, the kindest interpretation of the decisions surrounding the required drivers seems to be that, in the excitement of building new, leading edge software, the Unity and GNOME development teams lost sight of what they were doing in the first place.
Regardless of how the decisions about drivers happened, their consequences may be around at least until free-licensed drivers with complete hardware acceleration are the norm in FOSS.
However, just what those consequences will be is still being determined. In the short term, the driver requirements might encourage users' search for alternative desktops and distributions. If so, then GNOME 3 and Unity may have the opposite effect from what their planners intended. Instead of attracting users, their leading technology may be driving them away.
But in the long term, the effect of the decisions may be on FOSS driver development itself. In one scenario, the success of GNOME 3, Unity, or both could cause the use of proprietary drivers to spread -- although how they could be more widely used than they already are seems hard to imagine. In another scenario, the two desktops could publicize the current driver limitations, and encourage the needed development of free drivers. Right now, though, with neither released for as long as two months, it is too early to say which possibility is more likely.
In The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman describes how world powers come to make disastrous decisions. Like the British after the American Revolution or the Americans after Vietnam, both GNOME and Ubuntu are strong enough that they will probably survive their latest releases. But, in the driver requirements for GNOME 3 and Unity, perhaps they have made miscalculations that could cause shifts in FOSS -- and not the ones that their developers anticipated.
ALSO SEE: How Ubuntu's Unity Can Be Improved