Monday, September 11, 2006

Linux: Don't Try it at Home, Or, the Fable of Activist Publishing, Ltd.

Are you considering installing linux on your computer? Don't do it! (*) Here's a fable to describe my frustrations and why I feel the ideology of open source gets in the way of helping people use their computers.

Consider book publishing. Suppose there's one big, evil publisher out there, say one based on Washington State. The Washington publishers insist on printing every page of every book on paper featuring a particular watermark. The watermark is a titillating image of the backside of a woman's knee. Every page has knee-pit water marks and the bindings have a big logo of several women's kneepits. Now there's a group of religious fundamentalists-- activists-- who are personally offended by pictures of kneepits, and in the name of decency decides to set up their own publishing house, Activist Publishing (AP). Every one of the books from AP will be on plain white paper-- no kneepit watermarks. However, the activists are either unable or unwilling to make their own binders. The reasons AP doesn't provide its own binders are a complicated question of legal restraints and simply having much better things to do with their time. But books and books and books (all without binders) keep pouring out Activist Publishing.

AP does however tell folks how to get kneepit-logo binders from the Washington publisher. The readers are therefore either faced with the options of
  1. Going to the Washington publisher and then glueing the pages to the binder by hand, or
  2. Doing without a binder and dealing with a set of loose pages.
Problem is that the gluing process is complicated, which makes some folks not even bother leaving the Washington publisher. And nearly every person who gets a book from the AP ends up carrying it around in a binder proudly displaying a row of women's kneepits. Meanwhile, supporters of Activist Publishing condemn purchasers of Washington Publishing books because the books contain images of the back of women's knees.
In this analogy, Washington Publishing is of course Microsoft, and Activist Publishing is the linux community. Pictures of kneepits represents the concept of software which is proprietary, copyrighted, and patented, laden with spyware and digital rights management restrictions. The absence of kneepit watermarks is Richard Stallman's "free as in free speech" concept for open source software. The bookbindings are things like wireless drivers and video drivers, many of which come as copyrighted binaries rather than GPL-ed software. The difficulty in gluing is the computer and linux skills required to download and make-install drivers, perhaps even to recompile the kernel (required by some distros to get wifi). The gluing difficulty is also the fact that some distros don't "come with" wifi drivers (for accessing the internet) but provide you URLs to the binaries (which you can access via the internet). That the gluing instructions are available from AP is the fact that linux communities give you detailed instructions on how to get to the non-free stuff: it involves adding lines to your script for your repositories. The chiding of the Washington Publishing customers is what you can see daily in the comments about Windows users at the slashdot forums.

If you're really offended by non-free-as-in-speech software, wouldn't you refrain from giving out instructions on how to get it, wouldn't you be offended by setting up a system where folks need the binaries anyway? Wouldn't you drop EVERYTHING and make your own binders?

If you're really out to get people away from Microsoft, wouldn't you provide an alternative where everything is ready to go? For example, rather than investing man-decades in developing openoffice, couldn't the linux community have licked the drivers problem in like a few months if they really wanted to do it? And isn't it the most absurd situation to give people books with no binders? (SUSE 10.1 shipped with no wifi drivers because of the ideology of OSS).

I'm ticked because of what happened to me this weekend. I discovered that my kubuntu install needed the advanced video drivers for my NVIDIA card in order to use advanced features of blender. At 11:30 PM at night, I tried to follow some instructions from an ubuntu web page: the result is a wrecked ubuntu installation-- I see nothing. I later figured out that these binders come with Knoppix 4.01 and 5.01.

I work in the computer hardware industry using skills largely based on a materials science background. The opinions here are soley those of myself and not of my employer or on behalf of any software entity. I don't even speak for the linux distros that I prefer.

(*) When I say, "Don't do it!", I mean, "Don't use a linux distribution that requires you to do all the heavy lifting (glue-binding) yourself." I hereby endorse Knoppix 5.01 as the ideal distribution for newbies and for folks who just want to use the advanced capabilities of a computer. The reason is that it comes with the drivers you're probably going to need. It's as if someone went to all the trouble of making a coherent, working linux distribution and put it on a CD. (Oh wait, that's exactly what they did!) You can then install this distro directly to your hard drive. I will be writing more about this in weeks to come.

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