Practical Technology

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Freespire: Great idea? Awful idea?


t’s a simple idea. Take the Linspire Debian-based Linux distribution and bundle it with every proprietary driver and program that’s available for Linux. Ta-da, an instant Linux that’s compatible with far more hardware and applications.

The problem, of course, is that by combining proprietary software with Linux, you’re also legitimatizing the use of proprietary programs with open-source. To paraphrase Pamela Jones, editor of Groklaw, Linspire’s mangling of the language of Free Software can only pervert and confuse the open-source community and audience.

This could, according to some open-source developers, lead to a situation where the proprietary developers would call the shots. Eventually, this could cause Linux to recede into being just another minor, fragmented operating system.

In short, welcoming proprietary software into Linux is like being a little-bit pregnant. You either are, or you’re not.

Others don’t see it that way, though. Gordon Haff, senior analyst for research house Illuminata Inc., said, “Sometimes the folks over at Groklaw just need to take a deep breath and pop open a cold one. You’d have thought Linspire was making fur coats out of little kittens or something.”

“Frankly this isn’t even a particularly new idea. I suppose that we could argue about the details but, for example, SUSE has included CrossOver Office as part of its distro in the past.” CrossOver, “although WINE-based, is proprietary,” Haff noted.

It’s always been possible to use some proprietary software with GPLed code. The devil is in the details of how you do it.

Haff continued, “Whether some people like it or not, not all applications and components are open source and, if your objective is to create a useful tool rather than an ideologically-pure code base, it makes perfect sense to mix open and closed source.”

From a short-term pragmatic viewpoint, Freespire will enable users to more fully and easily use the capabilities of WiFi network devices, DVD players, ATI and nVidia graphics controllers, and the like.

As Haff said, in essence Linspire is doing nothing new here. Other Linux distributors have either included a few proprietary drivers with their distribution, or as in the case of Novell/SUSE, pointed its users to sites where they could obtain some proprietary drivers and programs.

What Linspire has done that’s new is to try to cut out the middleman for almost all the Linux-compatible proprietary programs. With its Freespire distribution, users will be able to choose to use proprietary drivers and software for MP3 and DVD players, Windows Media, QuickTime, Java, Flash, Real, ATI drivers, nVidia drivers, Adobe Acrobat Reader, third-party fonts, and on and on.

From where I sit, in the long run, using proprietary software isn’t good for open-source. I have the same objections to Win4Lin, virtual machine software like Xen and VMWare, and CrossOver Office. Anything that enables users and ISVs (independent software vendors) to keep using and making proprietary software discourages using and porting software to open formats.

If you were an ISV and you could sell one version of your software for both Windows and Linux users, would you spend the money to make a version just for Linux users? I’m an open-source fan and I couldn’t justify the expense.

Having said that, though, I also know that there are a handful of programs and drivers that will never be open-sourced. Topping this list are graphic drivers.

The graphics business is cut-throat and it’s all about making the fastest drivers by hook or by crook. A number of years ago, over at Ziff-Davis publishing, we found that some graphic vendors were deliberately rigging their drivers so that they’d do better on our graphics tests than they could really perform for users.

From everything I know about the graphic vendors, that sort of “deliver great numbers no matter what” attitude is still there. There’s simply no way that the big graphic developers are going to let anyone look at their code.

There’s no excuse though for, say, the WiFi device drivers people to hide their code. If they don’t want to spend the money to open-source their drivers, they can simply open the existing code up. I would venture to guess that there are more open-source network driver developers than all the other free software driver developers combined.

Without the pressure of open-source users demanding this driver information, however, because they can use Windows drivers wrapped up in NDIS (Network Device Interface Specification) envelopes, the WiFi vendors will be even less inclined to open-source their code.

Having said all that, I also know that new users will be a lot more inclined to use a Linux desktop if they can just sit down and use their existing WiFi cards without worrying about compatibility, or watch WMV (Windows Media Video) files without any fuss or muss.

To me, the whole question of Freespire giving proprietary software an open-source blessing isn’t really so much about open-source ideological purity as it is about which approach will pragmatically be the best for open-source and Linux’s long-term future.

My honest answer: I don’t know.

In the short-run, it will help the Linux desktop’s adoption. Will that, however, be enough to overcome its possible long-term negative effects? I just don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see how Freespire plays out.

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