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Linspire goes free, bundles proprietary goodies


Linspire CEO Kevin Carmony unveiled Freespire, a no-cost version of Linspire’s Linux distribution, in his keynote address at the Desktop Linux Summit on April 24. Freespire will be offered in both a completely open-source version as well as one that includes proprietary software, Carmony said.

The first beta release of Freespire will be made available for download in August, according to Carmony.

In his remarks, Carmony explained that Freespire will be a community-driven distribution, but that unlike other Linux distributions, it will allow users the choice of downloading a version that is almost entirely open source, or one that includes proprietary software.

Hot-button issue

Including proprietary software within a Linux distribution has long been a hot-button issue in Linux circles. Arguments over how proprietary or license-restricted code can — and cannot — be used with Linux have been raging for years.

Perhaps the most famous example was the use of TrollTech’s Qt library in the popular KDE Linux desktop. It wasn’t until Trolltech made the C++ library and related tools available under a dual license plan, with a GPLed version for Linux and other open-source uses, that the heated debate over the issue finally subsided.

In recent years, Linux distributors have tended to make some proprietary desktop programs, such as Adobe Acrobat and RealNetworks RealPlayer, available as optional downloads. However, in the case of drivers — such as laptop WiFi drivers — that work in closer association with the Linux kernel, distributors have generally avoided including them.

For example, in SUSE 10.1 betas and release candidates, the madwifi driver for the popular Atheros WiFi devices (ath_pci) no longer works by default. Here, the common problem of some of the code being under the GPL, while some is under a proprietary license, arises. The end result is that SUSE no longer ships this driver in its default distribution.

Overcoming desktop resistance

Freespire is thus venturing into new territory by offering a community Linux distro that includes the option to include legally licensed proprietary software pieces within the core distribution.

Carmony explained that Linspire was making this move because Linux on the desktop was meeting resistance due to its lack of native support for some hardware, file types, and multimedia formats.

Freespire addresses this hurdle by offering proprietary drivers and software as a choice, and gives desktop Linux users the option of “out-of-the-box” legal support for MP3, DVD, Windows Media, QuickTime, Java, Flash, Real, ATI drivers, nVidia drivers, Adobe Acrobat Reader, third-party fonts, etc.

Once released, a list of all of Freespire’s different proprietary codecs, drivers, and software will be made available at the site, along with the detailed licensing information needed to help others to modify and redistribute the core.

“Freespire is about choice,” Carmony stated. “The user should be free to decide what software they want to install on their systems, be that proprietary or open source. Linspire fully embraces and supports the open source model, but if Linux is to gain mainstream acceptance, it needs to work with iPods and DVD players, and fully support hardware, such as 3D graphic cards, WiFi, sound, and printers. Until there are viable open source replacements, Freespire sets out to at least provide the option of legally and easily using certain proprietary codecs, drivers, and software.”

No one doubts that many of these licenses are legal in and of themselves. The questions have always arisen in the murky area of how and whether the software they license is legal to distribute with Linux, which falls under the GPL 2.

While this is a matter that developers wrestle with constantly, for users, it usually amounts to having to separately download and install a number of desired proprietary programs and drivers when they start using their Linux systems.

Many proprietary codecs, drivers, and application programs will be offered in Freespire’s core distribution, while a few that have a larger per-unit licensing fee, such as legal DVD decryption, must be purchased and installed via Linspire’s CNR (click and run) service.

Based on Debian, Linspire, Ubuntu, DCC

As part of the Freespire project, Linspire’s CNR technology (a one-click, download-and-install software management system based on the Debian DEB package format), will be open-sourced to facilitate what Carmony calls a truly “free marketplace” for the distribution of all Linux software, including proprietary, open source, free, and commercial.

The new distribution will be based on Debian, Linspire, and Ubuntu, but will mostly be a direct derivative from Debian (Sid). It is also based on the DCC Alliance’s LSB (Linux Standard Base) compliant core Linux.

Initially, the Freespire desktop will be built around the KDE 3.5x environment, but as a community project, GNOME variations could be baked in, Carmony said.

At first, Freespire will only be available for the PC x86 platform. Linspire will be encouraging others to port Freespire to other platforms and architectures such as AMD64, Intel Core Duo, and POWER.

Community involvement

The Freespire project will be open to community development, comment, and contribution. A community forum is now live. The project will be governed by a Leadership Board that includes prominent Linux community members.

The board, which only has half of its members at this point, according to Carmony, currently includes: Carmony; Ian Murdock, founder of Debian, and now the LSB leader; Jim Curtin, CEO of Win4Lin; and Martin Michlmayr, a prominent Debian developer. Carmony said that the board’s other members will be appointed over the next two weeks.

Last summer, an unsanctioned Freespire Linux distribution, which also aimed to provide a free version of Linspire Linux, briefly appeared on the scene. Within a couple of weeks, the distro’s developer reportedly agreed to change the name of his project following a conversation with Carmony, and Linspire offered free copies of Linspire Linux “for a few days” as part of the arrangement.

The new, fully-sanctioned Freespire project will now provide the first sanctioned “free as-in-beer” binary version of Linspire’s Linux.

Novell launched OpenSUSE, the free SUSE Linux project, last summer at LinuxWorld in San Francisco. Red Hat launched Fedora, the free Red Hat Linux project, in 2001.

A version of this story first appeared in DesktopLinux.

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