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Editorial Operating Systems Software Linux

Proprietary Blobs and the Pursuit of a Free Kernel 405

jammag writes "Ever since the GNewSense team pointed out that the Linux kernel contains proprietary firmware blobs, the question of whether a given distro is truly free software has gotten messier, notes Linux pundit Bruce Byfield. The FSF changed the definition of a free distribution, and a search for how to respond to this new definition is now well underway. Who wins and what solutions are implemented could have a major effect on the future of free and open source software. Debian has its own solution (by allowing users to choose their download), as do Ubuntu and Fedora (they include the offending firmware by default but make it possible to remove it). Meanwhile, the debate over firmware rages on. What resolves this issue?"
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Proprietary Blobs and the Pursuit of a Free Kernel

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  • Go to Root Cause (Score:4, Interesting)

    by bill_mcgonigle ( 4333 ) * on Friday November 28, 2008 @10:36PM (#25921285) Homepage Journal

    For things like wireless drivers the vendors can hide behind the FCC's restrictions and not release open source firmware for their hardware. This is among the worst forms of lazy regulation as it treats all users as criminals, shifts complexity to the masses, and results in products of lesser quality.

    Get rid of the bad government policies and our computers would start working better. And we'd have more freedom, both on and off the expansion bus.

  • I just don't know... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Choozy ( 1260872 ) on Friday November 28, 2008 @10:37PM (#25921293)
    I understand the reasoning, if you wish to compete against commercially available software *cough* Microsoft *cough*. You need to provide a product that works as well as (if not better) than the competition. Should you use the proprietary software (I'm not talking about just firmware but also things like flash, etc). I just don't know. Would Ubuntu be as big as it is now if it didn't use proprietary? Would Microsoft see a loss of market share if there wasn't a (in the average user's perspective I am not talking slashdotters here) viable alternative?
  • Re:holy war batman! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Psychotria ( 953670 ) on Friday November 28, 2008 @10:55PM (#25921427)

    Well, I think the FSF are taking the exact opposite approach to the example you cite in your comment (note that I am not commenting on whether I agree with their definition or not). But that's the key word. Definition. The FSF are trying to define free software; probably to help ensure that things (subjective arguments) like your comment refers to don't occur. Everything in your comment referred to (by example) was, really, about personal opinion--i.e. people arguing semantics. The thing is though, they're aguing about something that is not clearly defined. Clear definitions help rule out subjectivity. An unambiguous definition, whether it's 'right' or 'wrong', states clearly the intended meaning--leaving little room for argument over the definition.

    Arguing whether it's right or wrong is a different story.

  • by Korin43 ( 881732 ) on Friday November 28, 2008 @10:59PM (#25921461) Homepage
    If the complicated parts of the drivers that they don't want us to know about were in ROM instead of binary blobs, and the drivers were very simple then it would solve the problem, because anyone could write drivers for whatever OS they want. As it is, you have to be using the operating systems that Nvidea allows you to use. I prefer not to have to wait around for device manufacturers to decide we should be able to use their hardware on a specific system.
  • Is it any more free than having a distro that's free but not having the freedom to run it on your hardware because it's completely useless?

    I understand the moral conflict, but it's not like I could buy a complete set of open hardware, and even if I could, I'd just be compromising on a different front.
  • by br00tus ( 528477 ) on Friday November 28, 2008 @11:08PM (#25921537)

    I am typing this from a Gnewsense system. I really appreciate the position Stallman holds - that the sole reason he would ever use unfree software would be to write free software to replace it. Thus, until he wrote the GNU system, he used proprietary systems and components until he could write his own free one. I am not able to go that far, but for non-work related things, I usually avoid non-free software, and even at work, I am working with Red Hat and other free software a lot of the time.

    I guess I wasn't following things closely as one thing I was surprised at when I started using Debian (and later Ubuntu) was that there was no free Java out there. Gcj/gij and Kaffe are out there, but neither is at a level that can run most modern Java programs. Sun said in 2006 they were releasing Java as GPLv2, but that is still going on as far as I know. No full-featured Java means problems for packages I use like Eclipse or Vuze or Freenet.

    Video players also have a lot of problems. Mplayer and Debian had a long history (of no Mplayer), but over the past two years it has been brought into Debian (but not Gnewsense). Flash videos from places like Youtube is a problem as well, I use Gnash, which can see some videos on Youtube and can't with others. It's also a whole rigmarole for me to watch Youtube videos on Gnewsense, I actually paste URLs into a shell script instead of watching them through my browser.

    I figure if I'm going to put binary blobs, Java, and so forth on, I might as well being using Microsoft Vista. I agree with Stallman that a system is not 100% free if it allows an automatic method of installing non-free things. I personally think Debian, while not 100% free, is still close enough to suit myself in terms of allowing the option of installing non-free stuff. I don't use Debian any more but I can appreciate their position. With regards to Fedora and Ubuntu, I do not think the "you can remove non-free stuff if you want" argument holds water. That is a slippery slope as far as I'm concerned.

    I appreciate Stallman's position very much. The problem with technical people is they tend to think very logically and practically and technically and don't really appreciate what Stallman's stance does. For every Stallman out there, there are thousands of guys in suits out there who want to see Vista, or at the very least some Suse hybrid on everyone's desk. I think we are very lucky to have Stallman around. I have to admit he has been helped by the Linus's and Debian's out there which are a little more practical, and a little less ideological (although to the average suit, they seem as ideological as Stallman). But stepping too far away to me is on a slippery slope to Vista land. It's an old story - if you can't beat it, then sue it for patent crap, start making Suse Linux/Microsoft hybrids and all of that.

  • Re:1 Answer: (Score:3, Interesting)

    by TwilightXaos ( 860408 ) on Friday November 28, 2008 @11:28PM (#25921643)

    While the Tivoization is allowed via GPL v2, it has been argued that it was never intended.

    This is obviously not the case with the BSD license, and if it was they would have released another BSD license that fixed it.

  • by rwwyatt ( 963545 ) on Friday November 28, 2008 @11:42PM (#25921725)
    There is no such thing as all encompassing freedom. We procure certain hardware and some of it may even be off the shelf. I deal with the tools given to me to perform the job. I certainly aim to procure hardware which is more open, but certain attitudes will kill the open source movement. I recently tried to install Fedora 10, and the graphics are completely broken with the nv driver. I was able to complete the installation by guessing at the number of tabs that I had to press in order to complete the installation. It was better than dealing with an entity that complied with misleading the users about capabilities such as Intel. Buying off the shelf hardware shouldn't disqualify me from using the operating system of my choice. Microsoft does very little well, but Linux outright hates the user. I hate to say it, but Linux is rapidly becoming a niche os because of attitude. I tried to get my employer to use Linux for test equipment because we need kismet, and too few people are willing to deal with the pain of learning a new OS and dealing with the attitudes of developers. For GNU/Linux to succeed, egos have to start being checked at the door. There is a way to profit from open source hardware, but freedom should be ensured during the design phase and not after the product is already commercialized. If you come up with a plan that will cut costs and increase margins, most companies will accept and embrace it. The cries of freedom cause nothing but alienation. Start putting forward designs that are free or quit complaining. I can't tell you how many "free" developers have told me RTFM, only to find bugs in their code.
  • by ShieldW0lf ( 601553 ) on Saturday November 29, 2008 @12:03AM (#25921833) Journal
    The answer is simple. The way to address the problem is to do to proprietary hardware what free software did to proprietary software. Design non-proprietary hardware and make it accessible to the masses.
  • Is it any more free than having a distro that's free but not having the freedom to run it on your hardware because it's completely useless?

    Having a distro like that serves at least one practical purpose: I can use it to evaluate a given set of hardware for compatibility. That can inform future purchasing decisions.

    For instance, having used Linux, I now know that I will never knowingly buy a Broadcom wireless card -- or, very likely, anything from Broadcom -- even for devices I don't plan to run Linux on.

    This is just taking that one step further.

    it's not like I could buy a complete set of open hardware

    Actually, under certain, limited circumstances, you can. I believe the OpenMoko Freerunner was such a device.

  • by bm_luethke ( 253362 ) <luethkeb@com c a s t . n et> on Saturday November 29, 2008 @12:21AM (#25921969)

    "I don't understand why people don't want others have the freedom to install proprietary software on Linux system."

    Because some see OSS as a political movement, not a tool.

    Personally I see it as a tool. Open source allows many different things that I could not do with closed source and, even back when it wasn't as technically sound an option it still often won because I could do what I needed with it.

    As a tool many OSS projects have been a great successes - better than most would have believed ten years ago. It has been so mainly for the reasons above plus it was *really* easy for companies to adopt into their corporate structure (after all, it was not only free as in beer but free as in speech). ESR "won" in this sense.

    As a political movement OSS has been an abject failure. It didn't achieve any of the goals of that drive the various founders. Some that were - hmm, not sure an actual term that fits term - but a mix of anti-corporation, anarchism, anti-capitalism and a few other political movements didn't see the fall of corporate structures. Some - which would be Stallman - didn't see a wave of community based software production where we all gave come about.

    It turned out that when you give people "freedom" they often do things you do not like. Indeed their vision simply strengthened those policies and companies they were fighting.

    In the end the problem with using it as a political tool is that there is still other choices. If I am going to have to choose between using an OSS product (even assuming I like the vision Stallman had) chances are I will go with Microsoft and all it's ills and have my company function instead of let it die and be "pure". Not allowing *any* non-open binary, not allowing any company that patents things you do not like to use your software, and a whole host of other things that many OSS projects are moving towards is a fine political statement - I have no issue whatsoever with someone doing that.

    If you are looking for your software to also be a tool you can't do that - after all if your hammer comes with a long list of stuff you can't build my bet is that you will go spend the money to get one you can build anything with - even if the former hammer is free money wise. Indeed, few would consider the hammer that you could not build anything the hammer's maker didn't like to be "enforcing freedom".

    OSS first hurdle was back when the decision was finally made to allow corporate interests to contribute with both code and direction. Many fought it but, in the end, a greatly improved set of software won out.

    OSS is in the next of it's critical times where it will morph into something that can truly beat Microsoft or become a mostly hobbiest's tool. It's been building for some time - at least the last five years. It's still not to a head but it is getting there.

    Personally I've of a mind that it is too late now - it will just cause a fork. Redhat, IBM, Debian, and many others will choose to keep their companies afloat over other entries and the "truly free" options will become hobbiest tools. GPL3 is pretty much as far as is going to be allowed and still be acceptable in the cooperate world (and even that one is hard to chew and has pushed a number of companies back to Microsoft).

  • by bm_luethke ( 253362 ) <luethkeb@com c a s t . n et> on Saturday November 29, 2008 @02:41AM (#25922689)

    I do not necessarily disagree with that - though I think that scenario is now very unlikely (OSS systems have enough acceptance that it would be ... difficult for Intel to do that).

    That is why you encourage Intel to Do The Right Thing. They may - one day - do so. However, if you tell them do it or else chances are they will take or else. Further when your OS can no longer run those extensions then your OS will not be run. Not even microsoft can take that hard line a stance and get away with it - I fail to see why many that have a comparatively minuscule market share think that they can.

    So, lets take another scenario (which is much more likely). Intel produces a closed 16 core CPU that requires proprietary microcode. Linux vendors demand it be fully open or they refuse to support it all. Customers needing the 16 CPU core (or wanting it) have two choices: purchase MS products and have it supported or figure out how to hack it into the system yourself through unapproved patches and probably paying someone to re-write what is needed to get it to work (guess which one will be picked). Intel then releases a 32 core processor and noting that few used their last product they decide to not even support OSS at all. While yours *may* happen if I get my way, mine *will* if you get yours.

    Of course, what will really happen is option three - RedHat (and several others) will ignore Stallman and do what they need to sell product. Many of the purists have somewhat woken up and have started to use what they are fighting against (licenses, patents, and such) to *force* OSS to what they want but the thing is just too easy to fork. Distro's that go the "pure" way will live only in hobby land.

    Of course, that is part of why companies like Redhat are both loved and hated - they brought Linux to the commercial success that it is today but "betrayed" those political/social ideals that many in the OSS community started with. Of course, having never truly believed those (like me, they read ESR and thought that buy made a lot of sense) they didn't really betray anything, they more or less showed that one side could gain a larger market and mind share than the other (which is probably even more infuriating than an actual betrayal).

    Now, of course, when HURD is ready then it will sweep the world - but until then I suspect that ESR's view of OSS will win pretty much every time it comes in conflict with Stallman's.

  • by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Saturday November 29, 2008 @05:45AM (#25923539) Homepage

    All the documentation in a free system distribution must be released under an appropriate free license. Additionally, it must take care not to recommend nonfree software. [...] What would be unacceptable is for the documentation to give people instructions for installing a nonfree program on the system, or mention conveniences they might gain by doing so.

    I hadn't bothered to read the damn thing as I expected it to be rather RMS-freakish but this... "The Ministry to Truth today decleared that there is only free software, there shall be no alternatives less it be a ruse by our enemies. Free software is perfect and at no point could there be any mention of imperfection, or anything else that might amount to criticism. It's doubleplusgood!"

    That is not free. This is brainwashing into believing there is no alternative, and that anything else on the outside isn't worth mentioning. Hell, it's pretty close to the sect of RMS denying that there even is an outside. This is pretty much the final proof to me that RMS has completely lost sight of what freedom is all about. Freedom is about making informed decisions based on all the relevant facts, what is why freedom of speech and freedom of the press are completely vital in a democracy. Completely unbalanced information is called propaganda, and the RMS definition of a free distribution is that it's a propaganda machine. Taking away information and choices for "their own good" is not the way to freedom, it's the way to hell paved with good intentions. It is exactly the same reasoning the Chinese use for their Great Firewall, it's what every totalitarian regime or religious sect has used. The freedom to use free sofware when your only choice is free software is no freedom at all, no matter how much you alledge it's for my own good. I'll stick to a distro with freedom, RMS can keep his.

  • by MrHanky ( 141717 ) on Saturday November 29, 2008 @08:47AM (#25924231) Homepage Journal

    I can't believe a totally illogical comment like yours is "+5, insightful". There's no censorship to not recommending a distro as "free" software when said distro itself recommends non-free software. It's only a matter of policy for whom and what the FSF wants to recommend. That's no more censorship than if Amnesty stated they would not recommend a political party that recommends torture. OH BUT THAT'S AN ATTACK ON FREEDUM OF SPEACH! No, it's not, idiot.

    Fuck, this site is so full of morons that it makes me sick.

  • by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Saturday November 29, 2008 @09:03AM (#25924281) Journal

    The UltraSPARC T2 is open source. You can download the Verilog for it, and with a big enough FPGA you can run it. Or you can run it in a simulator, or send it off and get it fab'd. You can take the core and incorporate it into a larger design with some custom accelerators (it has a very clean coprocessor interface for doing this) and get that fab'd. It has good performance and good performance per Watt for a lot of workloads.

    Open source does not been designed by hobbyists and does not mean without commercial backing. If you make improvements to the T2 design and release your changes, then Sun may well incorporate them in the T3, or if they don't, you can get someone else to manufacture the chips for you.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 29, 2008 @10:54AM (#25924781)

    BSD has the solution to the binary blob dilemma from a licensing standpoint. But that's not the only important standpoint.

    It's also important to put pressure on manufacturers to get rid of that crap by building the default firmware into their hardware, which only costs pennies nowadays so it's not a huge hardship.

    In that respect, the antagonism that free software advocates have against binary blobs is actually a good thing for everyone.

  • Laches: look it up (Score:3, Interesting)

    by tepples ( 727027 ) <{tepples} {at} {}> on Saturday November 29, 2008 @10:02PM (#25929311) Homepage Journal

    What's worst is that legally in order to maintain copyrights you need to make reasonable efforts at protecting those rights.

    That is a feature of trademark law, not copyright law. Look it up

    Every time a Slashdot user mentions diligence in defending your copyright or patent, someone who has never heard of estoppel by laches claims that only trademarks need diligence. Laches: look it up []. And while you're at it, look up other estoppel defenses [].

A committee is a group that keeps the minutes and loses hours. -- Milton Berle