Nov 25

New distros seem to pop-up every day in the GNU/Linux world. The majority of them try to be as FREE as possible, however when attempting to install a distribution on a new PC of a common next door user, you will probably find (I sure did) that you can’t avoid falling into these two proprietary sins:

1- Adobe Flash Player:

Let’s say that you install a new distro on a friend’s PC. You got it all setup and ready to use in no time and left his/her house feeling all proud and smiling, letting them enjoy the new experience. You will most likely get a call in a minute or two from a familiar voice asking you why he/she can’t view videos on websites like Youtube. Also, lots of websites depending on Flash Player will not be showing up properly or as designed to.

If you look for a free alternative software, you will soon end up installing GNASH, the GNU Flash movie player, which is quite an impressive try by the team over at GNU. This replacement application does the job quite good I must confess. Still, it won’t be long until problems start to occur: many sites will not support it, multimedia will not be playing correctly or crashing, you will be asked to install the Adobe Flash player or upgrade to the newest version of it. The average user will quite soon get annoyed and start complaining.

HTML 5 was introduced recently and video support without the need of any software is a very important step on the road to stop depending on Adobe and the Flash Player, at least not for viewing videos that is. This is a big step forward and it would be nice to see websites, especially the ones that are related to FREE software, starting to take advantage of all the new features.

2 – Graphic Drivers

Nvidia and AMD are doing a relatively good job with their Linux drivers and support. I am sorry to say, that despite the voices and the pressure from the community , these drivers stay proprietary.

Using the nvidia driver myself, I came across some bits of troubles: suspending might not work, flickering might occur, refresh rate issues, maybe some incompatibilities with compiz etc. Despite these, all in all the feeling is good. According to the notification I get to install them on Ubuntu 9.10: “This proprietary driver is required to fully utilise the 3D potential of NVIDIA graphics cards, as well as provide 2D acceleration of newer cards. If you wish to enable desktop effects, this driver is required. If this driver is not enabled, you will not be able to enable desktop effects and will not be able to run software that requires 3D acceleration, such as some games.”

As far as I know, the biggest equivalent to these proprietary drivers is the work of the team behind the nouveau project. I had given a chance to this attempt in the past, but I was disappointed. From what I read it has progressed, the 2D acceleration of the project is improving, but 3D acceleration is currently only suggested for testers.

I had never owned an AMD card, so there is little I can comment on here, however according to the FAQ on the official website:

“Q4: Is complete driver source code available?
A4: Some of the technologies supported in our driver are protected by non-disclosure agreements with third parties, so we cannot legally release the complete source code to our driver. It is NOT open source. We do, however, include source code for the control panel and certain other public segments. We also actively assist developers in the Open Source community with their work, so if you absolutely require an open source driver for your graphics card, we can recommend using drivers from the DRI project, Utah-GLX project, or others.”

If you are in an experimental mood, you can check the links given above for more. If you do or you have some further knowledge of them, please post a comment below letting us know about your impressions and thoughts.

I feel obligated to mention here the attempt made by The Open Graphics Project, which is developing graphics cards with Free-licensed specifications and Free Software drivers. I can only hope that this kind of work continues to exist and improve, producing the best of results.

Why do I bother writing about this?

I belong to the FLOSS community for a year and a half now, and I try to keep as FREE as possible. As most of people introduced to free software, I too came across various troubleshoots after I made the switch to GNU/Linux.

I tended to restart the system to my Windows partition on a daily basis, in order to complete a desired task. Soon I discovered Wine, which does an excellent job running all those Windows applications that you haven’t yet discovered an alternative for. Then I went on to using virtual machines like VMware and VirtualBox for the programs that wouldn’t run as intended on Wine.

Searching around the web, posting on forums, reading and learning,  I have gradually managed to replace most of the applications I use with free equivalents, which nowadays even do the job I want better than the ones I previously used.  As a result, I rarely have to use the methods mentioned above.

These two applications, Adobe Flash Player and the Graphic Drivers, are the only ones that I haven’t been able to be replace with something free yet. On the positive side, it’s nice to see that the companies behind the programs try to maintain a GNU/Linux version of their software and have it up to date. However they are still not free, and if you care about the ideology behind all these, am sure it’s bugging you too. Am waiting to see this coming to an end soon. Since the companies don’t seem to be persuaded to free the code and the software itself, I can only hope the teams behind the equivalent applications manage to get them to a fully working state as soon as possible.

Many might get the idea that I am writing this post to complain. On the contrary, I am stressing out that the FLOSS community has come a long way in the short time that I consider myself a member. Being completely FREE is a dream not that far away.

Depending on your needs, you might want to refer to some additional applications here, please keep in mind that this post is about the everyday user. If you still have something to add, feel free to leave a comment below.

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20 Responses to “The proprietary sins of an average GNU/Linux user”

  1. lefty.crupps says:

    > Being completely FREE is a dream not that far away.

    No kidding, I hadn’t really thought about it lately, but we really are pretty close. Wifi drivers used to be a huge sticking point but they’re now generally Free and functioning.

    Now, we need to get Netflix video streaming onto the Linux desktop. That is total baloney that we don’t have it, yet the devices that stream it (Roku, TVs) all are using Linux to do that.

  2. toim says:

    yeah, i agree with you.until now, i’m still using adobe flash to playing youtube and flash games in facebook and nvidia driver to activating kwin in kde4.but, i’ve plan to jump on nouveau and gnash if they both are stable enough.

  3. ubersoldat says:

    You’re forgetting media support for things like MP3’s. I can live without Flash, but without MP3’s no way!!!

  4. cwsnyder says:

    MP3s I can replace with Ogg files. Gnash gives hope for a FLOSS flash support. Even the noveau project gives hope for video drivers.
    I have two other sticking points: stable audio/MIDI editing and recording, and stable, easy to use non-linear video editing. I have been considering going Mac for those applications, alone.

  5. atomkarinca says:

    Using just FLOSS tools is not a dream. I myself am using the Nouveau drivers (nVidia GM 9200) for almost a month now and it’s working quite well for me (I don’t use any 3D software and I only play SDL games, so I don’t need the 3D capabilities). I’m also using Gnash, it’s not perfect but it’s working most of the time (including Youtube), so that’s enough for me, too.

    About MP3 and other media codecs; I have them installed but most of my music collection is OGG and FLAC. I just keep the codecs because my portable media player doesn’t support OGG (or Rockbox for that matter) and I have to convert my music to MP3 before I transfer them.

    All in all, we’re not very far away from being completely FLOSS. Some people think it’s nonsense but in my opinion it’s these little things that matter.

  6. Yuhong Bao says:

    Yea, I was able to avoid the second one because I have Intel integrated graphics with a good free driver. But I did have to install the non-free Flash Player and Adobe AIR for Linux too.
    “I tended to restart the system to my Windows partition on a daily basis, in order to complete a desired task. Soon I discovered Wine, which does an excellent job running all those Windows applications that you haven’t yet discovered an alternative for.”
    I went through a similar process too. In fact, I sometimes even have to visit sites using the Shockwave plug-in too, which is not available for Linux at all, so I have to run Windows version of Firefox in Wine!

  7. tetris4 says:

    I stumbled upon this news post today that seems very interesting:
    “Nouveau To Enter The Ubuntu 10.04 LTS Kernel”
    :)

  8. tzetgdsgds says:

    I’m running the free drivers for my ATI X1600.
    ATI doesn’t support my card any more.
    Have the FOSS-drivers installed, 2D goes well.
    3D doesn’t work unfortunately.
    (Ubuntu 9.10)

    About video on the web.
    An interesting thing for websites is Cortado.
    It’s very useful, works even under Internet Explorer.
    It is a Java applet in a HTML5 tag.
    If the browser supports the HTML5-tag, then it uses that. If it doesn’t, it gracefully degrades to using the java applet to do the job.
    Works even in IE!!!
    So what are websites waiting for? Start experimenting now!!

    I would say that being able to only use free software is coming closer and using only free software is only a few changes away nowadays.

    However, there is something even more important than free software, free data! And there for free formats!!

    The hard part will be to get all your data in free formats.
    music and audio in ogg formats
    video in ogg formats
    documents in OpenDocument format
    bitmap images in png
    vector graphics, images in svg

  9. I have switched to GNU/Linux 2 months ago. I haven’t logged in to Windows for a long time and had to do it only a couple of times.

    I am a musician and for me the main thing that makes me run Wine is the lack of serious software synthesizers and audio plugins. There are some, but too few to do any serious work. So apart from Flash, I have to use FL Studio 6 in Wine and all the VST plugins. But Linux Audio is very good and for live performances and studio work there is more than enough. Some tools need polishing and better GUIs, but with time that’s fixable. The plugin problem is, however, much more fundamental.

    As a regular user, Linux lacks games. I run some of them through Wine, but they are far from perfect. Tried playing Warcraft 3, but eventually too many crashes and problems made playing unenjoyable.

    Unfortunately, for a common user GNU/Linux is still very far away from being 100% attractive. Basically, there are almost no modern serious games for GNU and 80% of computer users play games, at least from time to time. Knowing that at your home you have a computer which is simply not capable of running the latest video game, which any Win user has no problem to try out is very frustrating. And having a Windows dual boot simply defeats the whole principle of 100% free.

  10. BlawBlaw says:

    I agree that Flash player is unreplaceable but its kind of the web developers fault for using flash in da first plaze.
    as for video drivers…use the vesa one – who needs accel anywaz?

  11. Mark says:

    Open source 2D and 3D drivers for ATI graphics cards will be part of the Linux 2.6.32 kernel release.

  12. Beer:30 says:

    I’ll preface this with the comment the machine I am currently running has no windows or proprietary software currently installed.

    Computers first and foremost tools. If the tool won’t do the job then it’s not a lot of use to you. If you need proprietary to get the job done then so be it. I don’t have a problem with people turning their machines into a physical embodiment of their beliefs but I’ve got a problem with people passing judgment on others for committing “sins” against a software philosophy. If it’s about freedom then we as a community can’t be against people deciding to run proprietary. Educate people but let them make their own choices.

    Most end users don’t live at the extremes. You’re going to win over more people towards the FOSS philosophy by nudging them down the road one step at a time. Don’t force them over the cliff.

    Free software is getting better all the time but it’s still not there for everyone. I’d rather have more people aware than fewer all in.

  13. F Fellini says:

    My journey in Linux has come a long way away from the old days of Dos and Windows. Minix was my first unix experience, and I liked the multiuser and multitasking system, which is a great improvement from tinkering with writing TSRs for background number crunching tasks idle cpu time.
    The state of affairs in Linux today is a far cry from the old days.
    Understandably, peoples’ needs change reflecting different life stages and career needs. I have never had a need for playing games or myspace and youtube, while some users rightly find this a deal breaker because thats what they need the computer for. Certainly, people are finding use for computer in areas that they never imagined, like mobile computing as entertainment.
    So far what is working is getting computer companies such as Dell, IBM, and so on to create products to fill the new needs that people have, which means getting component makers to cooperate on releasing firmware and drivers necessary to make Linux work better.
    Another thing that works, although it is painful, is what KDE did. Just force people to use free software with the new changes that are coming up. Since it is free software contributions from users are of utmost importance as are paid-for panels in commercial software makers for usability testing.

  14. gedece says:

    I don’t call them sins. I call them decisions. When the alternative is good, like with the open source ATI drivers I use, I’m all for free. I know they still lack some things, but I’m willing to wait for them to be included.

    Gnash is lacking way more than the flash player, it plays some videos and music, but it doesn’t play webgames. So it’s a decision between giving up webgames or using flash.

    It’s not a sin, because linux is not a religion.

  15. pol says:

    Wow! Great great review.

    religion or no religion they are definitely sins :P

  16. tetris4 says:

    Let me see if I can sum up a response here:

    First of all, am glad to see that lots of users keep completely FREE systems. Am also happy to see that free equivalents are making their way into the new distributions and kernels.

    Furthermore, switching to free formats is indeed a big challenge and a difficult task for the community, since proprietary formats are dominating the market. But that didn’t stop the community in the past!

    I don’t believe in the availability of games as the way to persuade people to join FLOSS. I suspect this will happen after (if ever) GNU/Linux is popular enough for companies developing games to make a profit of it. But still, will these games be FREE? =) If not, then we are missing the point made here, right?

    I am no fanatic nor an evangelist, many seem to get this idea from the article. I don’t know how I got into this position, defending about smg like this. Let me just clear out that I used the word “sin” as a metaphor, and tried to expand as objectively as I could on the argument I made.

    People are, and should be, free to choose whatever suits their needs.

  17. tetris4 says:

    Another news item from phoronix in regard to this post that put a smile on my face:

    Open ATI Driver More Popular Than Catalyst

    “…For the first time that we have ever hosted this Linux graphics survey, has an open-source ATI driver finally outpaced AMD’s official Catalyst Linux driver in terms of adoption…”

  18. Keith says:

    Ladies and Gentlemen,
    This is a very interesting post, one that I just happened to come across as I was looking for “free screen savers” to enjoy on this Fedora box that I just got 100% functional.
    The very thing that propelled me to use Linux in the first place was the recognition or realization that DOS based OS’s are so proprietary in everything and extremely hard to manipulate for the average end user from NTLDR on. These operating systems do not play well with others and are not flexible at all, while most other “free” OS’s and apps are extremely adaptive and flexible such as GRUB. I found myself paying allot of hard earned money for products that did not perform as well as I liked and gave me a limited number of chances to get it right before I ran out of licenses to, and had to purchase more chances.
    There is a solid place for non free operating systems and applications though. Consider that the Linux distribution Fedora is funded by Red-Hat who pays developers to build on the free kernels and applications that I love so. Also Sun Micro-systems who develop and release tons and tons of “free” software such as Virtual box and Glass Fish not to mention Java and Open Office which are huge projects partially maintained by corporate dollars and partially maintained by volunteers. I personally would like to thank them both for their contributions of money and time.
    As for the proprietary operating systems based on DOS who’s name is not worthy of mention in this blog concerning free computing. I do not plan on purchasing and, or running any of their products on any CPU after the death of the last hard drive with their operating system on it.
    Kind regards,
    KL

  19. Weevil says:

    If you’re using flash only to watch youtube, you might give the minitube player a try. No flash required, although their latest blogpost discusses some new proprietary measures from Adobe.

    http://flavio.tordini.org/minitube

    Anyway let’s go with this html5 freedom thing!

  20. Chris Carpenter says:

    Well, the first thing I want to say is great article. I completely agree with everything said, and I went through the same Dual-boot to wine to virtual machine situation.

    Now, to respond to a couple comments:
    First off, while there aren’t very many games that run natively under linux and are good, one of my favorite is a turn based strategy called Battle For Wesnoth.

    http://www.wesnoth.org.

    Also, while this one isn’t free(as in speech or beer), it does run well under WINE, because the developers try to fix any bugs that crop up with using wine with it. http://www.eve-online.com

    Finally, I would like to say that HTML5 currently does NOT equal freedom. At least not with youtube. Youtube is currently using a proprietary codec, h.264, which firefox refuses to support for ethical reasons. However, that being said, many people hypothesize that google will make their own free as in freedom codec to use for HTML5.

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