Free Ubuntu

I use Ubuntu Linux. Have done since the day it was released. And I like it. However, I’ve had more than one argument with Jono about what I perceive as its increasing move towards encouragement of non-free software. I don’t want to get into that argument right now, so simply take it as read that I’m concerned about it, and feel free to consider me wrong for being concerned; I don’t mind. Some people will be saying at this point: what about GNewSense? That’s Ubuntu with all the non-free stuff removed, isn’t it? Well, yes, it is. I’d like to use it. However, I can’t, for (as ever) two reasons. The first is that there is no upgrade path from Ubuntu to GNewSense. If I want to move, I have to do a fresh install of GNewSense. that means reconfiguring everything to work the way I like it to work. If you’re thinking that I can just back up my configuration and copy it over to my new gnewsense installation, then, well, perhaps, if I knew where it all was. I don’t have records of every config file I’ve changed; I don’t know where they all are; I don’t know if all my configuration will work on GNewSense because I don’t know what I’ve tweaked. I was surprised that I can’t just add the GNewSense stuff to my list of software repositories and tell my machine “go ahead and upgrade”. Apparently that’s not a goal for the GNewSense team; OK, no problem. I’m not going to tell them how to run their project. It strikes me that a reasonable proportion of their potential userbase is people who already use Ubuntu but want a genuinely Free version, but I don’t want to assume that everyone’s like me. The second reason is that GNewSense is based on dapper, Ubuntu 6.06. I’m running edgy, the newer version, Ubuntu 6.10, and I don’t want to lose the improvements that edgy brought me. Now, again, I’m sure that that’s not a deliberate decision but just a lack of time on the part of the GNewSense development team, but this reason and the other one lead me to not be in a position to shift to GNewSense. So, what’s the alternative? Well, I can’t really see how making a completely Free version of Ubuntu wouldn’t just involve (a) removing some packages and (b) rebuilding a few packages. I just don’t know which ones. I was hoping that I’d be able to find that out from the GNewSense people too, with the goal of me writing a “Free My Ubuntu” script which does all the removals for you: to get a completely Free Ubuntu without any restricted kernel modules, simply download real Ubuntu and run the script and you’re done. However, the GNewSense team’s workflow is oriented around you building a whole distribution using Ubuntu as a base, rather than about you taking an existing Ubuntu installation and turning it into GNewSense (or any custom version you’ve made) and so they don’t really have that sort of script. Some people (different people to the ones who suggested GNewSense above) may now be foaming at the mouth about how I’m a free software zealot who’s standing in the way of progress, and that Ubuntu is Free, and that I should just shut up. Again, feel free to consider me wrong; I won’t mind. I’m not suggesting that Ubuntu isn’t Free enough for you, I’m just saying it isn’t enough for me, and luckily, because of the nature of open source software, I have the ability and the permission to take the 99.5% of Ubuntu that I like and combine it with 0.5% of my own stuff to create my own perfect operating system. What I’d really like to see, in the fullness of time, is this entirely-Free approach be supported by Canonical and the Ubuntu distro, so there are no restricted modules, I don’t get offered the choice between free and non-free video drivers, that sort of thing. My wireless card won’t work, and I’m happy with that. Of course, I can understand why Canonical aren’t devoting a lot of resources to that, and I can understand and sympathise with the arguments in favour of the (very few) compromises in the direction of non-Free software that Ubuntu, the distribution have made (binary drivers being an example here, to increase market share and make it look as good as everyone else), and that Canonical, the company, have made (the commercial repositories, for example). If someone comes up with Frubuntu, or GNewSense changes its goal, I’ll happily move to them; in the interim, I’m thinking about, and trying to work out, what the best way is of stripping all non-Free things, binary firmware blobs, etc away from my Ubuntu installation. Feel free to comment on why you think I’m wrong but bear in mind that I have heard most of the arguments against before. I’d welcome help and suggestions here on how to do what I’m doing; in particular, if you have a comprehensive list of things with a disputed Free status then I’d be very interested in seeing it.

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