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Monday, 04 December 2006 04:21

Ubuntu begins its transformation

Next April, the Ubuntu Foundation will complete three years and six releases of its GNU/Linux distribution. It will also be the point at which the project begins to acquire a distinctly commercial hue.

It must be noted that Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical, the company that owns Ubuntu, has never sought to disguise the fact that Ubuntu will be supported both as a free of cost option and as a commercial offering.

With its sixth release, the commercial side of things will come into focus more sharply as proprietary drivers are included as default options in Ubuntu. Until now, these drivers have stayed in a non-free repository and never been the default choice. Binary drivers for ATI and NVIDIA graphics cards, that enable 3D acceleration, are among those being added; additionally, drivers for soft-modems aka win-modems and the atheros and Intel 3945 wireless chipsets are also being incorporated.

This is not the first distribution to include proprietary drivers. Debian GNU/Linux, from which Ubuntu is derived, does include non-free software but it is never a default choice in the installation. Given that vendors are reluctant to release either details of firmware for FOSS developers to write drivers or source code for the drivers they may write themselves, compromises have always been made.

There are problems associated with proprietary drivers: when the windowing system for GNU/Linux (known as is updated, this may cause proprietary drivers to stop working. What do developers do then - do they wait for the vendor to update the drivers (as only binaries are provided, the developers' hands are tied) or do they continue with old versions of the windowing system and hold back features from users who are not affected by these drivers not working?

When exactly such a problem manifested itself earlier this year in the Fedora project - Red Hat's community distribution - Mike Harris, who was maintainer of for Fedora, was quoted in Linux Weekly News as saying: "Fedora does not support proprietary drivers at all, and never has, nor has any Red Hat OS that preceded it. Our OS products are not held hostage to the release schedule whims of 3rd party proprietary driver suppliers. Part of the decision of choosing proprietary software, is making a conscious decision that you are held hostage by the vendor of that software to provide you with support for it. That unfortunate limitation should not expand to encompass all users of open source software. If that happens, everyone loses."

Hence one could have a situation where some vendors are held back by others - those who released drivers under the GPL or other "free" licences would have to wait until those who were only willing to release binaries update the binaries. It creates a case where every user is held hostage by the vendor(s) who refuse to release anything other than binaries.

Ubuntu developers have rationalised the decision by deciding to undertake what they call "binary driver education." In an entry in the Ubuntu wiki, they wrote: "As long as Ubuntu does ship proprietary drivers in the short term, we should take steps to improve the situation in the long term. We believe the best way to do this is to convey the problem to people using Ubuntu — explaining why we distribute non-Free drivers at all, what the risks are, and what people can do to avoid such hardware in future."

Public comment was mostly against using proprietary drivers as defaults. One typical comment ran thus: "I am concerned whether this spec is worth installing binary drivers. I think we will lose our arguments for free graphic drivers by doing so and also shoot other supporters like Fedora or Suse in the back. A small popup informing the user about non-free drivers means nothing when we give our best to make free drivers obsolete on the other hand."

Shuttleworth wasn't specific when he outlined the changes, merely saying: "The main themes for feature development in this release will be improvements to hardware support in the laptop, desktop and high-end server market, and aggressive adoption of emerging desktop technologies. Ubuntu's Feisty release will put the spotlight on multimedia enablement
and desktop effects."

It may be argued that it is time to move on and that software projects cannot be run without being commercially successful. True. But then there is also a counter-argument that once these compromises are made, control will forever pass out of the hands of the developers and into the hands of commercial entities which have little interests apart from their own bottomline.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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