My stance on Ubuntu and the Bad Vista campaign

From:     Ryan Lortie <desrt@desrt...>
To:       Bad Vista Contact <webmaster@badvista....>
Subject:  My stance on Ubuntu and the Bad Vista campaign

Hello FSF,

This is an open letter.

In the past year your organisation has seemingly taken a new stance on
what is important.  You have started participating in things that matter
to people other than hackers.  You are making attempts to reach normal
people -- wouldbe consumers of Trojan Horse technology products.  These
efforts are absolutely commendable.  There is no doubt that the fight
for freedom will be won only by convincing people that there are
practical alternatives to companies that are more interested in their
bottom lines than they are in providing a working product.

Your Defective By Design campaign is brilliant.  I've actually heard
people other than hackers (albeit, still geeks) talking about it.  Your
new Bad Vista campaign also hits the nail right on the head by letting
customers know what they need to know to make an informed decision.  A
distinct feature of these campaigns is that they don't spend time
harping about ideological freedom, but rather, stress real world
problems inherent in DRM.  You talk about practical problems that people
will encounter and be affected by.  You talk about practical solutions.

I am writing this letter because of a controversial decision that you
have made.

The Bad Vista page contains the following text:

     ...and provide a user-friendly gateway to the
        adoption of free software operating systems like
        gNewSense ( and Ututo

I'm not aware of what Ututo is, but by your recommending it, I'm going
to assume that it is subject to the same problems with gNewSense.

From the standpoint of focusing on real practical issues rather than
harping about ideology, gNewSense is basically exactly the same thing as
Ubuntu except that it doesn't work on most people's computers.

People have ATI and nVidia video cards.  Most people have laptops with
wireless cards that at least require firmware.

One of the real practical problems with closed source software is that
if there's a bug then you can't fix the bug and this might prevent you
from using your hardware.  In terms of practicality, this isn't really
much better then not being able to use your hardware at all in the first

Another practical problem is that gNewSense isn't a rock star.  Ubuntu

Let's face it -- no matter how good you are, you're not going to get the
average computer user to install a new operating system.  The people you
will convince to do this are people who are already technology geeks.
These are the same people who have read tech news sites talking about
this "Ubuntu" thing.

Faced with a recommendation to install gNewSense, they will say "huh?".
Faced with a recommendation to install Ubuntu, they just might say
"ya... I've been hearing a lot about that.  Maybe I should give it a

Even if you manage to get people to install gNewSense, you're most
likely going to be harming your cause.  The overwhelming majority of
computer users have some hardware that requires some sort of binary-only
code to operate.  People will install gNewSense and, with very high
likelihood, some part of their system won't work.  They will get
frustrated and annoyed -- possibly turned off of free software forever.
I know people who still pass judgement on Linux as a whole based on
experiences from 5 years ago.

Ubuntu is more or less 99% free.  It doesn't even come anywhere close to
being as awful as Vista is.  Besides -- I bet your computer is already
at least a little non-free.  Is your BIOS open source?  The ROM firmware
on all your devices?  Your CPU's microcode?  We all put up with these
things in the meantime because we understand that the only chance of
success will be to get people on to our platform.  Without users, we
can't make demands.

I understand that it's quite a strange position to be in to be
condemning Ubuntu on one hand for their shipping of proprietary code,
while recommending them to people on the other hand.  To do so would
require swallowing some pride.  I hope that this is something that
you're capable of doing.

Through your campaigns of the past year you've indicated your
understanding of the fact that your key to success lies in public
acceptance.  Recommending Ubuntu instead of gNewSense will increase the
public's acceptance of your platform.  You have to make sacrifices --
that's just the way it is.

I'm sure you appreciate the importance of what you're trying to do and
that you realise what a unique opportunity you have right now.  Please
don't waste it.

I am an Ubuntu user and member.  This letter is my personal opinion.

Ryan Lortie

16 thoughts on “My stance on Ubuntu and the Bad Vista campaign”

  1. > Without users, we can’t make demands.

    this was exactly the stance of some ubuntu dev protecting the binary-drivers-by-default spec.
    He could not hold up, since even if you get new users by offering non-free software, you still wont have more influence than before.
    Sure you can abck up your demand for open sourcing the software with a larger user base, but if the company say no, you can simply stop your support for their non-free software, since you would lose many of your users now.

    Yes I know you cant paint this black/white, but I think you were overgeneralizing in this paragraph.

    I for one think that if ubuntu ships nvidia binary drivers by default, it should not be recommended.

  2. Your implication that machines with NVIDIA and ATI graphics cards need proprietary software to work is simply not correct. Except for the very latest models (sometimes), they require proprietary software _in order for 3D acceleration to work_. This is not the same thing at all.

    Your derivation that ‘the overwhelming majority of computer users have some hardware that requires some sort of binary-only code to operate’ is also not true.

  3. Fedora or some other distro would be a better choice than Ubuntu. Ubuntu’s stance on video drivers is totally counter-productive to the FSF’s mission.

  4. Brian: Fedora would be fine too.

    Adam: You could also just use your laptop with wired ethernet instead of wifi. If you want to actually _use_ your hardware (and use all of it) then you need binaries.

    Pavel: only time will tell…. my wager is on the Ubuntu side (clearly).

  5. “rather than harping about ideology,”

    Having Free drivers is purely practical. Stop throwing the i-word about. People who make vague accusations of idealism in the Free software world are usually just not thinking ahead as many steps.

    “except that it doesn’t work on most people’s computers. People have ATI and nVidia video cards.”

    Well no, that’s misrepresenting things. Most machines will work fine in general, just with some occasional missing functionality. And functionality isn’t an all-or-nothing thing: I bet with all the non-Free drivers in the world, most laptops will have some functionality missing under linux.

    “One of the real practical problems with closed source software is that if there’s a bug then you can’t fix the bug and this might prevent you from using your hardware.”

    No – proprietary code running in kernel space can and does bring down entire systems. It causes otherwise normal errors to be undebuggable. Kiss goodbye to useful kernel panics and X crashes from ‘most’ users.

    “Ubuntu is more or less 99% free.”

    Then this time next year it’s ‘more or less 97% free.’ then ‘94%’ once you all decide to put DVD support in, then MP3… good enough, no?

    “Is your BIOS open source? The ROM firmware on all your devices? Your CPU’s microcode?”

    Yes yes, the whole ‘everyone has to draw a line somewhere’ thing. Your examples however are all ones where there is a tightly defined interface between them and the software. In fact your examples should never have to be changed on a machine – should never have to adapt to remain compatible – and mostly should never even be executed after a machine has been taken over by the kernel.

    Now, just so you know, I’m not really a supporter of gnewsense. While it would be nice, I doubt it will ever get the traction required to be a useful and well maintained distribution (and it has a stupid name), but I felt I had to point out that your argument doesn’t really hold water. Maybe rather than pointing the finger you should be looking in the mirror and asking yourselves why the FSF doesn’t feel it can endorse you.

  6. desrt: the two really aren’t comparable. 3D acceleration to most users is a toy for either playing games or playing with the 3D desktop. It’s not essential to any kind of productive use of the computer (well, except for people who work in 3D animation, but they’re hardly a majority of anything). Wireless is far more important, I’ll grant you, but even there you can’t claim a vast majority of computer users, or even a bare majority. Maybe a slim majority of new computer purchasers.

  7. “I know people who still pass judgement on Linux as a whole based on experiences from 5 years ago.”

    Ouch! You really haven’t investigated FSF:s standpoint, have you?

  8. it is actually very simple: one cannot explain that software has to be free and then recommend proprietary software. It would only sound hypocrite. I only use free software and it is very easy: when I buy a pc I’m attentive that it works with free software. *And* my user experience is better: the free drivers are better integrated, I never had to tweak Xin a long time for example.

    best regards

  9. i agree with most of the comments here.

    Ubuntu just isn’t free, it is even less free than Debian, face it.

    About graphic cards. I have a ATI card for my laptop and for my desktop and both run with free software (even 3D). There are a lot of 3D cards which run with free software (especially for laptops) and even if not most of them will run in 2D mode which will be enough for most “normal users”

    Wireless may be a problem but again most “normal” computer user i know have a computer somewhere in the room connected to the internet and that’s it. No big network, no wlan,… so i think the wlan problem isn’t a big problem for the majority of the targeted group. Also there are wlan devices which work with free software:

    So i think you overact while defending non-free software.

    You say you need non-free software to be popular and get users. But look at Fedora no non-free software and a very good and widly known and used distribution. I agree that Gnewsense and Ututo are not distributions which will reach many people. This distribution don’t have a large community which can help you, they have not many developers so you don’t know how long it will exist and how reliable you will get updates, bugfixes etc. and they are just not well know.

    I think Fedora would be the right distribution to recommand:
    100% free. well known, large community, stable development,…

    At the end you just have to face it. Ubuntu is not that kind of distribution what the FSF needs. You install non-free driver, you maintain non-free software (restricted), you even mix it up with free software (multiverse) and you use a bugtracking system (launchpad) which is non-free.

  10. “Even if you manage to get people to install gNewSense, you’re most likely going to be harming your cause. The overwhelming majority of computer users have some hardware that requires some sort of binary-only code to operate.”

    Is hardware different from software? I have software that requires some binary-only code to operate. Do you think it’d be useful to make the FSF suggest people use a distribution that provides this software?

  11. Ben:

    If it were possible for the FSF to send everyone free copies of open standards wifi cards and accelerated video hardware then your argument would be more reasonable.

    The entire point of this letter is that people already have computers and that computers are expensive. We can reasonably give people GNOME, Firefox, Openoffice. We can’t reasonably give them a new laptop.

  12. >The entire point of this letter is that people already have
    computers and that computers are expensive.

    Maybe they also have software and software is often much more expansive than hardware.

    How much do you have to pay for a wlan card? 20-30EUR (ca. 15-25$)? Not more. I think that can everyone invest who have already bought a lpatop for 1000+x EUR and saves 100+x EUR for software if he really needs wlan and the integrated card doesn’t work.

    As i said, distribution like Fedora shows that you can be a good and popular GNU/Linux Distribution and resist on Free Software.

    I respect Ubuntu and the decision of the Ubuntu-Team. And yes, Ubuntu is a very good distribution for many people. But on the other hand i think it’s not hard to understand that Ubuntu isn’t the right distribution for the FSF or for people who really value freedom.

  13. Fedora is not recognised by the FSF as “Free” either. According to the FSF, it is because they allow software with OSI-certified licenses, some of which are not recognised by the FSF.

    The Fedora EULA also requires users to obey US export control laws. The Squeak license is considered to be “nonfree” by the FSF for the same reason.

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