Software Freedom vs. Usability: Must We Lose One To Gain The Other?

Thursday Nov 15th 2007 by Matt Hartley
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Linux purists believe freedom comes at a price – the price of me not being empowered to decide which software I install on my own operating system.

So what does free software mean to you? Not to be confused with Freeware, which refers to "free" as in free of "cost" to the end user. I’m talking about the kind of software freedom that’s derived from not restricting your users from altering or distributing software developed by you.

For years, this type of software freedom was enough to drive a cult-like following that has, over time, grown into a virtual army of users. From the most hardcore personalities like Richard Stallman, to those who are simply more interested in seeing successful adoption of their vision, like Linus Torvalds, the history of open source software and free software has been turbulent. How do open source and free software differ? Let's start off with visionaries from both camps.

Software Freedom vs. Usability
“The first major event that truly gave Linux adoption for casual users a shot in the arm was the development of the Linux LiveCD."

Stallman's vision of software is one of total freedom, and as little corporate involvement as possible – none is preferred. Torvalds’, by contrast, believes in the best tool for the job. Sometimes this is open source software, sometimes proprietary. You see, open source has largely been believed to exclusively mean the spirit behind the GPL open source license. This is the license behind the Linux kernel.

However, there are plenty of other open source licenses that are not nearly as restrictive. One many of you have not heard of – yet are likely benefiting from – is the BSD license, the open source license that made OS X's use of its BSD operating system a reality. Unlike the GPL, BSD licensing is quite simple and allows for restricted code to be tied in along with that of the code-licensed BSD. Anyone using an Apple product has likely seen evidence of this.

Free software on the other hand, while often confused with open source, does not play well with restricted ideas such as trademarked materials, and has a very strong aversion to anything proprietary, even via third party sources.

Usability: Then and now

Compared to what Linux was in the late 1990's, today's modern distributions offer more usability than ever before. But a lot of people remain unclear as to what actually drove Linux distribution adoption into high gear over the past few years. Was it a sudden desire to follow Stallman's vision of free software? Not even close. It was a number of breakthroughs in usability.

Rather than attempting to nail down exactly which event had the most impact, I am going to toss some of the biggest events in my mind out there for you to discern which had the biggest impact in generating massive growth amongst the world population.

The first major event that truly gave Linux adoption for casual users a shot in the arm was the development of the Linux LiveCD. The first distribution to really "hit the market", though not technically “first” developed, was called Knoppix.

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In 2003, Knoppix had quickly blown the minds of the most steadfast Windows user. To those living in a Windows world, there was something magical about an operating system that you could freely burn to a CD-R, drop that disc into a CD-ROM tray on your PC and then boot into - Live! All this, while not touching the existing Windows installation on the hard drive.

The ability for Windows users to run an OS off a CD was definitely groundbreaking. Yggdrasil may have made the concept a possibility, but it was Klaus Knopper (creator of Knoppix Linux) that changed the world for many Windows users, myself included. It was the "push" to trying something new that many Windows users needed. Perhaps even a gateway to Linux adoption.

At the same time, a number of purists were none too happy about Windows users using Knoppix as a crutch, as they apparently saw it at the time. "Either install the distribution or don't bother using it at all!" I heard this response more than once from certain Linux forums back in early 2004.

Next page: The purists fight back, this time it's personal

Live distros were then a relatively new concept and the hardcore amongst the Linux usership had a real problem with the fact that the most popular amongst them at the time, Knoppix, included some proprietary software for compatibility reasons. Even though proprietary inclusion in Linux distributions was already happening previous to this, it was Knoppix that was wooing many new users over to the Linux side of the fence due to its ease of use.

One thing that I believe was lost in the midst of all this is: what truly drives innovation with software? Is it the promise of wealth, or the ability to provide society as a whole with a freely available OS solution? At one time, before the boom that was Microsoft and Apple, I think it was largely providing others with the benefits of one's creation.

Software Freedom vs. Usability
"I find it rather comical to use something called "Burning Dog" instead of Firefox, due to trademark issues from Mozilla."

Today, closed source software is big money, huge even. Companies like Adobe and Microsoft, among others, try to convince the world at large – with slick marketing campaigns – that they’re the only option.

And this has even been an issue in the Linux world as well, with companies like Linspire, Xandros, Novell and Red Hat, all working to market their own special brand of Linux distribution to those who would be willing to buy it. Each preaching its own benefits, each claiming to be just what their target market is looking for. All of them, of course, looking to build (or increase) a solid marketshare.

Novell and Red Hat, as you can see here, generally run at their own pace, without using code from other distributions besides that of the kernel itself, GNU/Linux.

So what is GNU/Linux? In order to make heads or tails of that mess, you must first understand the history between the Linux kernel and the man behind the Free Software, Richard Stallman. Here is the condensed version: According to Stallman, the proper name for the Linux kernel is indeed, GNU/Linux. And according to Linus Torvalds, we should be calling it "leen-ooks," so pick out which ever name works best for you. But to be fair, traditionally speaking, GNU/Linux is the proper way to describe Linux as it is a GNU (GNU is not Unix) project.

So in the end, the GNU part of the Linux name has been dropped, much like we call the United States of America "the U.S." It was mostly a matter of naming convenience and lazy branding on the part of those who use the kernel in their own distributions.

But this type of thing is not something that just happens to the Linux kernel. Even the code base of popular distributions can suffer a similar fate, sliding into what some people refer to as obscurity. I’m talking about the bastardization of the Debian distribution code base.

Debian, a distribution coded by those expressing strong feelings about remaining free of anything proprietary, has to live with being used by likes of offshoots, Xandros and Linspire. These distributions take Debian code and then bundle it with the same proprietary goodies that the folks at Debian work so hard at railing against. It's legal, but not very pleasant for the folks working on Debian, I imagine.

The purists fight back, this time it's personal

Another distribution based on Debian, also sponsored by a corporation, has found success firmly in the middle of the two groups. Vowing never to make Ubuntu something unobtainable to the masses with a price barrier, Ubuntu sponsor Canonical has managed to keep any proprietary modules intact with their supported Linux offering, while at the same time preaching freedom of choice in how one uses their software.

Ubuntu has become something of a rock star within the Linux world. Despite recent gains by the now famed PCLinuxOS, a simple Google Trends query will show you the real story of which distro is set to become the industry standard for desktop Linux – it's Ubuntu. And this is not sitting too well with the Linux purists, as proprietary drivers in their beloved GNU/Linux is not something these users will ever tolerate.

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Just as things were looking bleak for the Linux purists on the newbie adoption front, from the guts of Ubuntu development comes a distribution that shares the vision of its Debian roots. Making sure to maintain Ubuntu's ease of use for the common man. Enter, gNewSense.

Just like Debian, there are no trademarked logos or restricted modules, and all proprietary firmware has been stripped out. To the Linux purist, this is GNU/Linux distro at its finest. Yet one must get past the absurdity of remaining so pure that trademarked material cannot be included, while the code of the software associated with it can be. I find it rather comical to use something called "Burning Dog" instead of Firefox, due to trademark issues from Mozilla.

Use of titling like “Burning Dog” and a lack of easy access to Flash, Java and other restricted items is just partly where Ubuntu and gNewSense part ways. Some people are able to overcome this, others still have taken action to create free software alternatives that will provide much of the same functionality, or so the developers hope.

Next page: Free software alternatives to closed source solutions

Free software alternatives to closed source solutions

Projects like Nouveau, Gnash and Ice Tea Java are stepping up to take on important roles that have, up until now, been exclusively filled by proprietary options. Allow me to share some quick background on them.

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Nouveau, a promising open source 3D acceleration project for NVIDIA graphics cards, may one day mean that NVIDIA will no longer need to be bothered with Linux driver development. It's great in concept, but like many purist visions, it needs help as it remains quite unusable at this stage of the game.

Then there’s Gnash, which hopes to replace Adobe’s Flash. Further along in usability than Nouveau, yet it has about as much functionality in Linux as Flash 7. As any Linux user is well aware of, Flash 7 for Linux was pretty bad with regard to Flash-based video and audio synchronization.

And last but not least, Java Ice Tea or simply "Ice Tea," to be proper. Probably the most usable out of all three projects to date, you can take Ice Tea for a test drive to see how good it is compared to Java. If you are interested in doing so, Fedora 8 is the easiest course of action to doing this.

So there it is in a nutshell. Purists both as users and as a developer community are working for the same thing that the rest of us are in the Linux community. Same path, but the purists are opting for Linux adoption vehicle that is based on their vision of software freedom instead of a practical, “take what works” approach.

People such as myself prefer freedom of choice. This means the freedom to easily install open and restricted software into my distribution of choice. Linux purists on the other hand, believe that their freedom must come at a price. The price of me not being empowered to make my own decisions on which software I choose to install on my operating system.

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