Let's Move FOSS to Its Logical Conclusion: Page 2

Posted September 23, 2008

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

(Page 2 of 2)

Nor are these examples simply speculation. Such problems occur all the time in the proprietary software world, leaving users no choice but to endure, buy new software or hardware so they can run alternatives, or to try and stage some sort of consumers' revolt, as happened when Adobe decided -- apparently for market reasons -- to stop supporting FrameMaker for the Mac. But the point is that, if your system consists entirely of free software, such surprises are less likely. Lacking a profit motive, free software tends to continue support for software and hardware long past the last user.

But product cancellations are not the only problem with proprietary software. Digital restrictions management that prevent legitimate actions such as reinstallation or backup, forced updates, the unauthorized collection of information about your computing habits -- these are all increasingly common and well-documented characteristics of proprietary software. Each of them reinforces the basic fact that, when you use proprietary software, you are not in control of your computer.

Because free software not only rejects these activities but has source code available for anyone's inspection, you can be sure that, on a completely free system, they do not take place. But, if you are running any proprietary software on your system, you lose that guarantee. You do not need to be paranoid to conclude that, if you value your freedom -- that is, your control of your own computer -- that the development of a completely free operating system is in your own interests.

Sprinting to the finish line

Unfortunately, as the business logic of open source spreads, such considerations seem to be increasingly neglected. For example, over the last couple of years, the GNewSense project, with its goal of producing an entirely free distribution, has documented that even the Linux kernel depends on proprietary firmware for some drivers. Yet, instead of trying to change the situation, many users prefer to jeer at GNewSense's reduced functionality in the name of its goal.

Similarly, when Alexandre Oliva of the Free Software Foundation - Latin America tried to get Fedora to use his linux-libre kernel -- a kernel with all the proprietary blobs removed -- it was considered only as a possible option, rather than the distribution's default kernel. Even Debian, whose members like to think the distribution is the freest of all, have yet to reach a consensus on the subject of proprietary firmware, although the issue seems simple enough.

Large organizations with a long history tend to resist change, so perhaps such reactions should only be expected, even if they run contrary to the organizations' alleged ideals. All the same, if the same effort expended in denying the need to finish the goal of free software was directed toward filling the last remaining gaps, then we might see some rapid progress.

The Free Software Foundation's high priority page is overdue for updating, but it still lists the most basic needs, including 3D video drivers, Flash players and tools, a free bios, a full free implementation of PDF, and a clean-room replacement of Microsoft's .NET. Considering the hundreds of companies involved in FOSS and the billions of dollars they realize from it, I do not think that asking them to finish the effort from which they benefit so much would be an unreasonable request. Probably, most of these goals could be reached in no more than a year.

Of course, making GNU/Linux -- or any other operating system -- completely free would not automatically eliminate proprietary software, which is Richard Stallman's declared goal. But it would make GNU/Linux a complete alternative and an equal competitor at last.

The goal is eminently reasonable. The only question is whether the community has the will to pursue it.

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Tags: Google, wireless, free software, policy, VMware

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