Wednesday, November 15, 2006

gNewSense Version 1.0 - Absolutely Free Linux Advocating Freedom

A recent announcement on for a new distro called gNewSense perked my attention. It seems that the Free Software Foundation, the group headed by Richard M Stallman, otherwise known as RMS, sponsored this project and basically was conceived "due to Frustrated by many Linux distributions which include (or make it easy to include) non-free software in their products, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) has decided to enter the Linux distribution market by sponsoring a new project called gNewSense. Based on Ubuntu Linux, the distribution, created by two Irish free software advocates Brian Brazil and Paul O'Malley, released its first stable version last week. The gNewSense mailing list immediately witnessed a rapid surge in traffic, indicating that the interest in the project is reasonably high, even at this early stage. Most of the discussion is currently revolving around possible improvements to the project's infrastructure and advocacy. If you strongly believe in the four software freedoms as advocated by the FSF, then gNewSense looks like a perfect distribution to use and an exciting project to join" quoting from DistroWatch Weekly, Issue 176, 6 November 2006

As clearly stated on Stallman's Free Software Foundation web site: Free software is a matter of liberty not price. You should think of "free" as in "free speech". The Four Software Freedoms mentioned are as follows:
  • Freedom Zero - the freedom to run the program for any purpose, any way you like.
  • Freedom One - the freedom to help yourself by changing the program to suit your needs.
  • Freedom Two - the freedom to help your neighbor by distributing copies of the program.
  • Freedom Three - the freedom to help build your community by publishing an improved version of the program so that others can gain the benefit of your work.
Now typically it is my practice to go over the install process as how any newbie to Linux might encounter, but since this is really an unbranded version of Ubuntu, that process can be followed along from in my Ubuntu review located here.

Instead, it is our goal to talk about the functionality of this distro, how it works on various machines compared to its proprietary ladened counterparts, and discuss a few topics about this gallant offering from Brian Brazil and Paul O'Malley. Therefore our normal package of Installation will get the same score as Ubuntu at 4 Pennies, although this one did seem to go smoother on a machine where the Live CD actually started. More on that later.


Download Here
Kernel - Kernel 2.6.15
Desktop - Unbranded Gnome only
FAQs -
Cost - FREE!!! ah, if you had to ask that one with this distro, your on the wrong planet
Special Features - Live installer, excellent icons/graphics, absolutely free from proprietary code, modules or "blobs"

Nitty Gritty:
Installation ( )

Please see Ubuntu review for detail of the Ubiquity install process

Starting ( )

One thing you notice once the Live CD finished loading was a nice and simple layout and good graphics. While this doesn't really show the power of Ubuntu under this hood, it is showing that this distro is not just taking all that Ubuntu's teams have done, strip out the logos and icons, and repacking back as their own.

Why didn't they put Free as in Beer... here, I don't know.

A quick tour of the applications and the main ones of note are the basics to what I like to call simple productivity. There is Firefox for your web needs along with Evolution that ties to the Gnome desktop. There is the Ekiga Softphone and the Gaim client for IM. Office Applications are not bare, using Open Office applications to keep up productivity.

One thing I really liked was the artwork of the login screen. Simple things make me happy I guess. But this is what really will set apart the look and feel of this distro from someone looking at Ubuntu.

Deep inside gNewSense is where the real changes happened. Basically they stripped all of the commercial components of the Kernel, those pesky little things like video drivers, wireless card drivers and other "blobs" as they call them and kept only the open source components. Now this did kill the functionality on my eMachines m5810 and m6805 laptop by dying on kernel failures which I am sure I could have prevented by telling the system to boot with "no acpi" or "pci=noapci" boot switches, but again I try to tailor this to newbies and how would they know about those issues? So I was really restricted to trying this on VMWare only. I did run the live on an older HP Desktop running an AMD processor and an HP6220 laptop, so I am sure it would install on these, but just getting it past the boot process was my goal. I am sure with the lack of some firmware "blobs" in the kernel, hardware will be hit or miss, so try before you buy on this one is absolutely necessary.

Bonus Stuff ( )

The largest bonus of gNewSense is the fact that it is completely free from proprietary code of any kind. I would also have to say there is a downside of Freedom. With the lack of any proprietary code in the distro, basically all the "cool" things go away. You can't play DVD's without codecs from libdvdcss and win32, you can't play mp3's without that codec and you sure as hell don't get 3D or wireless if you have any of the main vendors who do video or wireless. So in the end you are free and in control of your machine, but you are basically limited in the function and wow factor that the latest and greatest computing brings to consumers. Yes, you get on the internet, you can work, you can code with the best of them, but as for fun, well you better have a Play Station or XBox.

Another lacking aspect of the distribution right now is a lack of knowledge base that people can turn to, with no real Wiki or Forum to speak of, but since this is based on Ubuntu, knowledge for the base system is plentiful. I would like to see more direct support, but over time that will naturally evolve and no doubt will be stellar.

I did take a bit of time and emailed the development group with a couple of questions. What I wanted to know was:
1) What is your end goal with gNewSense?
2) I noticed you have FireFox included, does that mean you do not stand
behind the IceWeasel project and their issues with the FireFox Icon?
3) What are the plans to support PCI (embedded) Wireless cards for laptop users?
4) With the recent announcement of Novell and several people indicating that their new policy of "licensing" to Microsoft is actually a violation of GPL, what will gNewSense do in regards to supporting Evolution, Gnome, and and other Novell based software packages not mentioned?
5) How do you feel about people adding proprietary or non-open source packages to your distro in the future and is there any restriction in your license restricted said practice?

A couple of members of the community took the time to answer these for me, and I wish to thank them for doing so. Andreas replied back to number one with "A long-term sustainable distribution consisting of only Free Software as it is defined by the FSF", while Karl Goetz mentioned that he wanted "A 100% FSF Free distribution".

As for question two, both mentioned pretty much the same thing, as told by Andreas as "Firefox came along with Dapper, so it's not an active choice at this point. So far one of the most requested features is indeed the inclusion of the Iceweasel. The practical problems are the long time security support and active maintenance, and being a fledgling distribution there are little resources to dedicate to having strictly gNS native packages at the moment." In reading a couple of the email chains on the list, there is a lot of work moving to get the IceWeasel package into gNewSense and having Ubuntu support the extensions issue.

Number three got what I felt was going to be the answer, I just wanted to ask it anyway. Karl stated quite plainly that "If they run on Free software, they get support. If they run non-free software, they get no support. (non-free software includes non-free firmware)" This is following the four software freedoms to a tee, so one would naturally have expected. I guess I was hoping for some really intense effort to backward engineer, but again I think that goes against what the FSF is all about. Instead, they want the hardware people to come to them and open up the doors on what the hardware is really doing and why.

As for question number four, I was a bit aught off guard that a topic as hot as this one wouldn't be talked about more within the FSF, as it really impacts what people considered as being open, now possibly being closed. Karl mentioned in his response that "This hasn't been discussed much in our community to my knowledge. But if software is under the GPL it's under the GPL. And until some party tries by force to deny users the rights granted to them under the GPL it's mostly just a marketing gimmick and a scare tactic." While I agree that some people are making this out to be more that it really is, the fact still is there that by licensing some of their key components, Novell is basically moving away from GPL into a third party agreement. It will be interesting to see how this plays out for gNew, especially since Gnome and Evolution are the two key pieces still run by Novell.

The last question number five was just a thought to see how the team would react to people doing what I expect some will eventually do, once they realize that somethings just don't work, especially laptop users. I wanted to see how militant they were about this practice, to see if this was a hot topic or one they had already considered and possibly restricted by policy if not by license. I was very pleased by both answers, with Andreas clearly stating "We cant restrict the practice in licenses - that's the beauty of the gpl. The official line is (again afaik) we do not support people installing non-free, and will not assist them in this task. We wont however stop people setting up 3rd party repositories, because we cant. Personally, it seems odd to install a system for its freeness, then install non-free on it." Karl went on to add, "Obviously it can never be added to the distribution itself. And hopefully our community will prove strong to not setup third-party repositories to distribute proprietary software for gNewSense. The only official project statement so far is a promise to uphold the four software freedoms and there have been no such things as for instance an equivalent to the Debian social contract formulated yet." This really is what I was hoping was that the essence of the distro would be the key to controlling people doing what they want once they took the time to download. I agree with Andreas that if people plan on doing this, then probably Ubuntu itself is the better path. I just wanted to know that the goal wasn't to really try and place any restrictions in the code to limit the repositories that people can add in the future.

I would like to again thank Andreas, Karl, Brian and Paul for taking the time to send me notes and help me pull this information together. Hopefully these were questions on your mind and with the answers being open and clear, I think everyone who reads this will be happy with the responses, as I know I am.

Overall ( )

Is this what computing should be about? Well, that is never really on the mind of RMS or FSF. They are in the game of freedom of companies profiting from knowledge that should be open to the world. They are against DRM in how it licenses things you purchased away from your control. I applaud the efforts of these individuals and stand behind this distro 100% in what it is trying to do. However, as a realist I am into getting all of what my laptop that I paid $1700 for has to offer. I hate MS and their crappy code and BSOD. But I love to get on the internet with my wireless card. I hate the idea of having to pay to watch a movie that I paid for, but I love to be able to watch a movie on a plane ride across the world. I hate the idea of some video card company knowingly restricting its features only to promote their own agenda, but I love 3D features and eye candy. I wish I wasn't all of these things, and I feel that I am part of what the FSF is trying to combat; people willing to compromise their beliefs for functionality.

The other part of me is still an engineer and business person who understands some of the issues with just giving everything away for free. In my industry people want more wireless minutes, free phones and no dropped calls with coverage everywhere, yet they don't want towers and they hate paying their bills. Do I wish it were free, hell yah!!!! But reality then would be I wouldn't have a job, nor would about a million people world wide that work in the wireless industry. The fact remains that in order to make money, some things need to be proprietary and/or covered by IP. It sucks, but it is the world in which we live. Star Trek aside, the future is more of the same and until we get a remedy for greed and plain old corruption in industry, we will be governed by these truths.

I wish I could put this in the 5 Pennie review category, but right now it isn't the time for freedom for the sake of lack of function. Once the industry gets a bit farther along, or hardware people open up the cabinets and let out code to drive a lot of the hardware out there today, then this will be the model of what Linux should be and will most likely become. It is a bit ahead of its time, and that might be its undoing, but I for one will always have a copy of this on any machine of mine that will run it. Thank you gNewSense for taking a stand and giving the world Freedom. For those who have been looking for this, the team is definitely in need of help in many areas, so please get involved in either financial support or with your time and knowledge. Together with people of like mind, this distro will be what many FSF enthusiasts have been dreaming of for years: a distro that works and is completely free.

As always, if you appreciate what you have read here, or any Linux site for the matter, please remember that Free as in Speech is not the same as Free as in Beer. We need your help in supporting what we do, so please if you can donate here by the link below or simply click one of the adds you see. We truly enjoy bringing our view of various Linux distros and helping newbies get on track with their hopes of becoming free of MS and Patent Lawyers, so anything you can do to help will be greatly appreciated.

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