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What if Shuttleworth is right about Ubuntu binary blobs?

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memenode's picture
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I've just read Mark Shuttleworth's recent take on the issue of proprietary drivers inclusion in Ubuntu, something I've been waiting for to read since I see Shuttleworth as quite a smart guy.

After reading this I am starting to think what if he is right? For someone whose end goal is to have a completely Free Software OS available it is definitely a goal to make Nvidia and ATI free their drivers. And it seems that there is no disagreement on that when it comes to Shuttleworth. He seems to share that same goal.

The question is really about the method that is going to be used to achieve this goal. So a Free Software purist would say that we should reject these non-free drivers completely until we either develop a free alternative or ATI and Nvidia free their own drivers and that this would put pressure on ATI and Nvidia to free their drivers in order for them to be bundled with GNU/Linux. Otherwise, the message that we may be sending is that we are fine with these drivers just as they are now, proprietary.

This is definitely a strong argument, but I am willing to consider the opposing argument which describes a different method. The method which should win is essentially a better one and in this case I believe the right choice as well.

The alternative method is to ship non-free drivers in a most popular GNU/Linux distro, but in a way that would alert the user of the fact that what they are installing is restricted and that they should be buying a freely supported card next time around. This means that maybe hundreds of thousands of users would basically be told not to buy certain ATI and Nvidia cards at the same time as installing the proprietary driver for these cards. It does seem likely that ATI and Nvidia wont see this as a good thing for them. Their business is in selling those cards, after all, not selling drivers. And to have this OS of growing popularity actually recommend people to buy something else next time ought to put some pressure on them.

Combine this pressure with the lobbying that Canonical, as quite an influential force from the GNU/Linux world, is apparently doing towards ATI and Nvidia trying to persuade them of the benefits of freeing their drivers and you might just have applied pressure that compares if not exceeds the pressure that would be applied if we just outright rejected their drivers.

Rejecting proprietary drivers also means that a lot of the people using these cards will have to find out on their own that these cards are not supported freely and that they should better buy something else. But by including proprietary drivers right into the distribution, they don't need to look further than that dialog box explaining to them what exactly do these proprietary drivers imply.

I am not siding with this view just yet though, but I am considering it. Maybe Ubuntu has the power to have both at the same time. Maybe it can allow for an out of the box hardware enablement AND apply pressure towards freeing these proprietary drivers, in one hit?

If we are to talk about any other less popular distribution the issue may be more tilted towards a purist view. I definitely wouldn't argue that a much less known distro should include proprietary drivers with this "warning" dialog, but when Ubuntu does it, a distro which has a great influential power now, maybe it can end up doing good and achieving our common goal? It sure is a pragmatic way of doing it, but IF it in the end achieves an idealists goal, then maybe it should be considered.

Please discuss.

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Daniel Memenode signature

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I don't see why smaller

I don't see why smaller distributions shouldn't use the warning dialog method. Purism may or may not cause these distributions to stay small, and just including the proprietary software without a warning is definitely not the right thing to do.

Also, it is easier to convince a distributor that currently included proprietary software to add a warning dialog, than it is to convince them not to include the software.

Finally, a system that works but warns is a much better way to convince users than a system that just doesn't work, without an explanation.

So I'd say: let both pragmatic and purist distributions include the warning dialogs. The purist distributions can choose to install nothing proprietary, just display the explanation.

dylunio's picture
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I feel that different

I feel that different drivers have different priorities for being Free. For instance I don't see why a distribution should include a non-Free nVidia or ATi driver for glitzy desktop graphics since the computer works without a glitzy desktop. But I think things such as drivers that come for WiFi and network cards, as well as disk drives can be non-free if there are no Free replacements. I say these things since they are necessary to get a computer to a usable state (to boot, and use the Internet [yes the Internet is essential]).

As for warning dialogues, they sound a good idea, since they educate potential users of non-Free software about it's dangers etc. while not necessarily depriving them of it if they need it to get the computer to work.

memenode's picture
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dylunio wrote: I feel that
dylunio wrote:

I feel that different drivers have different priorities for being Free. For instance I don't see why a distribution should include a non-Free nVidia or ATi driver for glitzy desktop graphics since the computer works without a glitzy desktop.

As the argument goes, not fully enabling these cards leaves a great amount of computing power not used. There is some truth in it as I witnessed myself when I enabled by ATI card. I felt a performance boost as the card took over all graphical rendering from the main processor and main memory. It could be said that without enabling a graphics card that is in a computer, the computer runs slower and therefore GNU/Linux can be deemed slower.

Still, is it absolutely necessary? No. Wifi drivers are probably much more crucial as you pointed out. The biggest reason for Ubuntu doing this is probably obviously to attract as many people to Ubuntu as possible which hides another argument for doing what they want to do with feisty: bringing a greater number of people to Free Software and educating them about it as well as about the free/non-free support status of particular pieces of their hardware.

However I've talked a bit about this on #gnu channel, which sports at least a few purists (notably "ams") and he makes a point about sticking to software freedom being incompatible with choosing to use proprietary drivers to supposedly promote a freedom supporting goal. This argument is that you can't promote freedom by agreeing to freedom restrictive terms in any way, that it is self contradicting and that by doing what he is doing, Mark Shuttleworth is doing evil.

The same argument goes directly against inclusion of even the wifi drivers or any proprietary blob whatsoever. Ams criticizes Canonical for even providing a "commercial" applications distro where they offer Opera, as well as Debian for hosting a non-free repository.

I am personally on a crossroad right now. I am seriously considering the value of Shuttleworth's method and questioning the argument of not compromising being the best way to promote freedom in absolutely every case (though I would say that in most cases, not compromising is the best).

In other words I am trying to see whether I can accept Ubuntu as a "special case" due to the extraordinary position in which they are today.

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memenode's picture
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I've just read what Mako

I've just read what Mako said about it and I think he makes some excellent points in a clear way.

If freedom was part of the original Ubuntu philosophy, but was compromised only in cases where free alternatives do not exist and only for hardware enabling (not applications) and now they are moving the compromise further to include proprietary drivers even where free alternative exists, I don't think I can find a suitable justification.

Here's a crucial question in my example:

When I get and install Ubuntu Feisty and it detects my ATI card which works with free drivers (plus the muddy kernel blob) in both 2D and 3D, what will Feisty do?

Will it stick with that working free driver + the blob (as it is in edgy) or will it install proprietary ATI driver anyway?

If it does the latter I can't possibly justify that. Not only is the card working with free drivers (though with that blob), but it might as well work better with free than non-free drivers considering the poor reputation for quality of ATIs drivers. Also, by doing this they are directly detributing from the project of developing free R300 driver by reducing the number of potential testers.

Heck, I can have the cube, play Nexuiz and all that without non-free drivers on this (quite close to high-end) card. I don't need nor want proprietary drivers for it.

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I think I've made up my mind

I think I've made up my mind about this. It is a compromise not worth taking, and there are a few reasons for that:

  • Many ATI cards are already supported in both 2D and 3D by free R200 and R300 drivers, even though it requires a binary blob in the kernel to work. If, however, Ubuntu starts shipping non-free ATI drivers even when there is a free alternative, it is directly shunning the project of developing free drivers. A very bad, foolish and actually quite non-pragmatic thing to do.
  • Shipping proprietary drivers by default, but providing a dialog box educating people about dangers of these restricted drivers wont help so much as not shipping proprietary drivers, leaving them in the non-free repository and providing this dialog only when the user decides to install it from this repository. The former is still making it easier on ATI and Nvidia to keep their status quo and not releasing free drivers and specs.
  • The stated reason to include proprietary drivers is apparently to attract as many people to Ubuntu as possible through eye candy and out of the box hardware enabling. However this is a weak reason. The impression with 3D effects is short lived, but can be well enough served by demonstrating this on boxes which have graphics hardware fully supported by free drivers (Intel, some ATI cards) which has an even greater effect. It not only shows that "GNU/Linux can do amazing 3D", but that "amazing 3D works best with free drivers working with these specific cards". It makes people want to try GNU/Linux AND buy hardware supported by free drivers. Two shots in one move!
  • Not even Windows has out of the box 3D and to require this from GNU/Linux at the price of compromising the Ubuntu philosophy is foolish. GNU/Linux already IS more user friendly than Windows in many ways and already *does* have better out of the box hardware support with the right hardware. Proprietary drivers wont move us so far ahead in that sense, but free drivers eventually will. Why not just invest more time, money, effort and limelight to these free drivers, rather than overshadow them with non-free?

Considering that software freedom IS part of Ubuntu philosophy and that even open source people agree that "open source"/Free drivers are better than non-free there is no disagreement that we ultimately need free drivers in the end. To compromise this philosophy is to compromise this goal. It is not pragmatic. It is a bad strategy. Ubuntu can do better.

Thanks

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The message sent by Shuttleworth is...

"Free drivers would be nice, but we don't really care so much; you can keep doing what you're doing."

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idontknowctmwhatsthepointofcapitallettersorspacesorpunctuation

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3d is ugly

Maybe the better question should be why do we want 3d drivers so bad in the first place? Most 3d art is inherently ugly, too realistic and also too blocky. I remember refusing to play several early 3d games because everyone looked like a block. Later 3d became "almost realistic" except realistic in the sort of gray world look out the window and find a good reason to be unhappy way. The lighting is all wrong and the colors do not stand out in a vibrant manner, or else they are too glaring like old 16 color games. Actually, looking out the window is much more enjoyable experience than looking at the artwork in many "games". The main problem with real life is I can't go to the local graveyard after dark and kill undead(again).
The other problem with 3d is when so much is devoted to the 3d and various textures, game play tends to suffer for it. If you make a game that has beautiful graphics and terrible game play, after a while, people grow tired of the graphics and then they quit playing, but if the game play is good, then people still like the graphics but don't stop playing because the game play is boring. 3d can also be disorienting to walk around. Granted one you get the hang of it and develop a mental map its not that bad, but in the meantime it is confusing and you don't know where you are. With 2d it is easy to see where you are right away.

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I think there can be no

I think there can be no simple policy like "never include" or "always include, but warn". In my humble opinion, this would be ideal:

case 1: the proprietary software is absolutely necessary for the computer to work without replacing any hardware. A "working" computer should have:
- 2D graphics
- sound (if there is a sound card)
- storage (including RAID and external storage such as DVDRW and USB drives)
- a keyboard
- a mouse
- a network connection, possibly wireless
Not all of these ever require proprietary software right now, but you never know what hardware might appear in the future.

response 1: include it on the default CD if permitted by the proprietary license, but tell the user to buy different hardware next time because proprietary software cannot be supported (distributor can't fix bugs)

case 2: the proprietary software is not necessary for a basic "working" system, but is necessary for some to get their work done. For example I have installed acroread because some pdf files I encounter cannot be read properly with any free readers.

response 2: make it easy to install the software, but inform the user about possible free alternatives and warn the proprietary software cannot be supported

case 3: the proprietary software is needed for things nobody REALLY needs, such as gaming and fancy graphics

response 3: make it hard to install the software, and warn it cannot be supported

----

Now why do I say "warn it cannot be supported" instead of "warn the user is giving up freedom"?
In the end it is more or less the same message, however the first feels helpful, whereas the second may feel like annoying evangelizing.

memenode's picture
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Jastiv wrote: Maybe the
Jastiv wrote:

Maybe the better question should be why do we want 3d drivers so bad in the first place? Most 3d art is inherently ugly, too realistic and also too blocky. I remember refusing to play several early 3d games because everyone looked like a block. (...)

The way of perceiving 3D art is probably a quite subjective thing. A lot of people like the way modern 3D games look, along with the effects that are usually included. I would actually count myself among those people.

It sure can't be as realistic as reality, but you know, it comes close to as realistic as in the movies on TV. Eye

Anyway, the important point is probably that a great majority of computer users, even if everyone are not hardcore gamers, like some computer 3D experience every now and then and find the modern 3D graphics satisfactory for that bit of escape into another worlds.

I'm not saying this to justify proprietary 3D drivers, but to justify having 3D support at all, by free drivers.

I think that a distribution should include only Free Software applications and all the Free Software hardware drivers that are in existence. Proprietary software should ideally be not included at all, but to stick with the way Ubuntu currently does it, let's say include only the bits that are required for current "must have" hardware to work (which leaves 3D cards without free drivers support out) including free 3D drivers where they exist. When there are no free 3D drivers then don't include them. Put them in a restricted repository instead.

And that would be just a temporary concession, of course, but it would at least emphasize the need for currently not available free 3D drivers more than just including proprietary drivers to fill the void by default, warning dialog or not. I don't think it should be *that* hard for a user who really wants that non-free driver to just get it off some repo and install themselves.

tbuitenh wrote:

Now why do I say "warn it cannot be supported" instead of "warn the user is giving up freedom"?
In the end it is more or less the same message, however the first feels helpful, whereas the second may feel like annoying evangelizing.

I tend to agree with that, although somewhere along the line the user should be told about the freedom thing as well, even if in a way that (s)he is more likely to understand. Maybe just expanding on the "support" notion would do, explaining what exactly does this support mean and how come that proprietary drivers cannot be fully supported (which is where a hint at the lack of freedom as the reason should become quite obvious).

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Some more discussion

I found out that Jono Bacon from Canonical expressed some more views on the subject. It's an interesting read.

I do not change my position, that we should not "fight" with "weapons" that we precisely oppose. But I can certainly feel the desperation some GNU/Linux contributors are in, seeing the difficulties we are having spreading GNU/Linux. I can understand some are ready to make sacrifices.
I learned for example that Firefox can't be the default browser on Vista (or it seems like it). It's such little things that will progressively wipe us out, by making it difficult to use free software.
If Ubuntu does indeed go for "proprietary bling", there will be a hard decision to take on GetGNULinx.org.
Just some thoughts. I try to not stop thinking ;-)

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