What if Shuttleworth is right about Ubuntu binary blobs?
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.