The Free Software Foundation's "High Priority" List: A Key Guidepost

The FSF's high priority list of desired improvements for the desktop is a reliable guide to the state of free software, and an invaluable resource for the GNU/Linux watcher.
Posted December 10, 2007

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

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Every couple of years, someone compiles a list of programs that GNU/Linux needs to compete on the desktop. For example, in early 2006, Novell conducted a survey of the applications that people most wanted ported to the platform.

However, if you really want to track the most pressing needs for a free desktop, the most useful indicator is probably the Free Software Foundation's (FSF'S) list of High Priority Free Software Projects. Projects make this list "because there is no adequate free placement," the list's home page explains, which means that "users are continually being seduced into using non-free software."

The trouble with other lists is that they are mostly wishful thinking. No matter how many people clamor, we aren't likely to see GNU/Linux versions of Adobe's PhotoShop or DreamWeaver, let alone Microsoft's Visio. Aside from the obvious animosities in Microsoft's case, most major commercial software vendors accept as a truism that they can't make a profit selling in the GNU/Linux market, so, for the most part, they don't even experiment with the idea. To do so, they would have to radically alter their business models, which, as Xara's half-hearted efforts demonstrate, they are either unwilling or unable to do.

Besides, at this point, the makers of major software products on the Windows platform face stiff competition from rapidily maturing free software rivals. So, if the port isn't going to happen, why waste time pining for it?

Another problem with these lists is that they tend to focus on specific programs. Often, they're more indicative of what people use on Windows than any lack of functionality on GNU/Linux. For instance, even before the GIMP recently came out with color management, it made a more than adequate replacement for PhotoShop for all except -- possibly -- the highest-end professional designers.

By contrast, the FSF's high priority list is about functionality. Instead of obsessing about what people use on other platforms, it pinpoints what is still missing in the efforts to build a politically free desktop. This emphasis makes it a more accurate indicator of the platform's current state.

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Projects are listed primarily by the time they have spent on the list (which is often, but not always, an indication of their importance to daily computing). Each links to an explanation of why it is on the list, and the projects, if any, that are working towards providing the missing functionality.

Except for the recently-added GNU PDF, which is actively collecting donations in the hopes of allowing some developers to work full-time on the project, none of the projects are actively soliciting funds. Instead, the list is given mainly for information, and, perhaps, in the hopes of helping developers decide what they might focus on.

The current projects

Currently, the following projects are on the list:

  • Free software 3-D video drivers:
  • Video drivers are the dirty little secret of many GNU/Linux users. Traditionally, you either have the choice of using proprietary and sometimes buggy proprietary drivers, or free ones without 3-D support. That's starting to change, especially with some of the drivers released in the last few months by AMD's ATI division, but more work needs to be done. The high priority list focuses specifically on working to improve the Direct Rendering Structure in the X Window System, specifically with changes to the xservers and related libraries and kernels, but other efforts are more manufacturer specific, such as the Nouveau project, which is reverse-engineering NVdia drivers.

  • Free bios:
  • Unlike the programs in which you work, your computer BIOS remains proprietary. Since installable BIOSes are the norm these days, the FSF would like to take the final step and see free BIOSes as well. The most promising free BIOS project is LinuxBIOS, which can boot a computer in under five seconds, using either Windows or GNU/Linux. The main problem holding back the project is a lack of support for many motherboards and a lack of a major vendor that ships with LinuxBIOS.

  • Gnash:
  • The goal of Gnash is to provide free libraries for viewing and working with Flash, a technology that is being used everywhere these days. So far, Gnash has had some success with viewers for Flash 6, but support for later versions of Flash are still in development. Nor has a Flash editor appeared yet.

  • DotGNU:
  • GNU/Linux already has a partial implementation of Microsofts .NET (AKA C#) language in the Mono Project. However, many people in free software are concerned that Mono could face patent attacks from Microsoft. Just as importantly, some view Mono with suspicion, especially since it is sponsored by Novell, Microsoft's chief partner in the community. DotGNU is an effort to provide a technical and political alternative.

    Continued: more items on the high priority list

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