Measuring the Price of Free Software

Opinion: Linux distributions that insist on maximum software freedom aren't always the easiest to deal with, but there's more than religion involved when weighing their cost.

By Roy Schestowitz | Posted Oct 30, 2007
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Opinion: As GNU/Linux becomes more popular, the motives behind its inception are often forgotten. Linux is a free operating system, but its broadening user base perceives this freedom as pertaining to cost, not rights and liberty. It's important to step back and remind ourselves of the purpose and importance of distributions which try to make a difference, sometimes at the cost of ease of installation and use.

gNewSense (pronounced nuisance) quickly caught the spotlight last year. It was the latest among several Linux distributions whose developers adhere to the mantra of Free Software (where the capitalized "Free" indicates that it refers not to cost but to whether it conforms to the philosophical tenets of groups like the GNU Project and Free Software Foundation.) gNewSense is a version of Linux derived from Ubuntu Linux. It essentially strips off every bit of code that is not Free, i.e. all elements that are closed and proprietary.

gNewSense is an intriguing name that has been neglected for a while because Canonical, the founder and parent company of Ubuntu Linux, introduced Gobuntu, which maintained its roots and relationship with gNewSense. At present, because of the popularity and ubiquity of Ubuntu Linux, Gobuntu is often seen as the de facto Free distribution of Linux.

To an average user, Gobuntu can be daunting. Its support for certain hardware components, for example, can be limited or nonexistent. Yet the fault lies not in Linux. Rather, such deficiencies should often be associated with the manufacturers of various bits of hardware.

If drivers are provided for Linux, they often come only in binary form (i.e. no source code), which is forbidden from inclusion in Free Linux distributions. In fact, some hardware is not supported by Linux at all, though the situation is improving as more manufacturers recognize and respond to growth and rising demand for Linux in the marketplace.

The goals of Free Linux distributions and particularly the means for achieving these goals are not a case of prejudice, let alone what sometimes gets attributed to zeal. The assumptions made here and the theory behind this have deep roots in scientific thinking. Free Linux distributions offer several benefits, including the following:

Security

It is not only believed, but it's also been shown by studies, that open source drivers make the software more secure, predictable, and therefore robust as a whole. A Linux distribution that contains 'black boxes' from various vendors is generally misunderstood. It is therefore unsurprising that the next Linux kernel, whose version number will be 2.6.24, has already taken steps that discriminate against binary drivers.

Remember, software cannot be tested properly if some of its internal parts are developed in complete isolation. There is no room for independent inspection and comprehensive audits of the software in its entirety -- from the bottom layer which is the kernel up to more abstract and user-fundamental layers, such as the graphical user interface.

As an example of this issue, consider a number of critical security holes in the binary drivers delivered to Linux by NVidia. These drivers, which sit deep in the 'belly' of the operating system, have on several occasions exposed the entire system to intrusion, essentially leaving it open for full compromise. Not only could this be prevented at an early stage had more eyes been watching the code, but independent parties could also patch the flaw promptly rather than wait for NVidia to finally unleash a solution. As long as the development is closed-source, NVidia is the only company that controls its drivers, which are the only ones available. This leads to the next point.

Control

Over time, due to not necessarily welcome sophistication, there is an increasing loss of control over one's own software. To use an example, take digital rights management (DRM). In the Free software world, a great deal of notoriety was earned by DRM. Its harms are believed to have outweighed the claimed benefit, which is reduction in copyrights infringement (and to content producers -- the reselling of content, which is essentially being rented, not sold). At the end of the day, data can be lost repeatedly, which costs the consumer.

In this struggle for control, the user strives to control access to personal data and manage his/her expenses. With proprietary software, one usually buys a license to use the software rather than truly own the software. It is firmly believed by some luminaries that only Free software can change these worrisome rules completely. It would stop discrimination against the user of software and the consumer of information.

With Linux, ideally, the user should be in full control of the software. The user gains full ownership, too. However, binary drivers in Linux change this. When it comes to behavior of a driver, one relies on the vendor of that driver. It's all or nothing at all. If the user is not happy with the behavior of the driver and rejects it, then corresponding hardware is rendered unusable. Likewise, if the user dislikes the behavior of a closed-source program, then the only other option is to choose alternative software which is open and Free, rather than reshape and tailor the existing software for personal needs.

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