Ubuntu GNU/Linux’s Benjamin Mako Hill writes that he’s “perplexed by the recent fracas around the possibility of Ubuntu shipping non-free drivers by default as part of the feisty release goal to bring the bling“. “Feisty” is the codename for the next major release of Ubuntu GNU/Linux and “bring the bling” refers to splashy video effects like making windows shimmer when moved, or spinning the desktop image around. As of the time/date stamp on this post, the Ubuntu Wiki (linked above) says that the proprietary video driver software will be installed by default but won’t be enabled unless the user’s video hardware wouldn’t work without it. None of this discussion seems to get into the proprietary firmware (software uploaded to the computer running on some device) which will be employed as well.
So we’re presented with an opportunity to better understand what Richard Stallman is talking about when he describes the difference in reaction between a free software proponent and an open source proponent. I recommend reading the entire question-answer exchange so as to get proper context, but here’s a small quote:
So if I am offered a choice between a proprietary program which is powerful and reliable and a free program which is not, I choose the free program because that I can do in freedom. I’d rather make some practical sacrifices to reject oppression.
But suppose you want both? Suppose you want freedom and solidarity, and you want powerful reliable software? How can you get it? You can’t get that starting with the powerful, reliable, proprietary program because there is no way you can liberate that program. The only way you can get that, your ideal goal, is to start from the free program, technically inadequate as it may be, because you do have the option of improving it. That is the only path that can possibly ever get you to your ideal situation. Insist on freedom and make the program better.
Ubuntu’s choice is hardly surprising. Ubuntu’s unwillingness to abide by their own philosophy (“Every computer user should have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, share, change and improve their software for any purpose, without paying licensing fees”) is not new; Ubuntu’s fealty to the open source philosophy is clear (despite any language suggesting that software freedom ranks highly).
The Opera on Ubuntu GNU/Linux press release tells the tale: their press release claims “Ubuntu will always be free, and will not have restrictive licenses associated with it.” while crowing about distributing copies of a restrictively licensed web browser called “Opera”. The self-contradictory language clearly tells you where Ubuntu’s priorities are.
You might as well ask about how a soon-to-be-freed Java from Sun will affect Ubuntu GNU/Linux users who know nothing of software freedom: it won’t affect them because Ubuntu has been willing to distribute the non-free Sun Java software. See what happens when you fail to teach users about freedom for its own sake?
The argument Hill makes about choosing between non-functional hardware and using proprietary drivers will probably get some reaction from Alberto Milone who recently learned that proprietors don’t care about some users. Since open source proponents care so much about developmental methodology, I’m sure they’ll notice the non-free Ubuntu bug tracking system feature more bug reports about bugs Ubuntu users are prohibited from fixing due to the restrictive licensing of the video drivers. How restrictively licensed are these drivers? According to the licenses, users are told they may not reverse-engineer the software for any reason. So seeing what the driver is doing that isn’t working properly is forbidden, if the license is taken at face value.
Your summary of the specification is not quite right. The proprietary driver will be enabled if 3D desktop effects will not work without it. 2D acceleration is also supported in the free drivers for just about every card out there. The proposal is a change from mostly-working free drivers by default with non-free drivers available to non-free drivers by default.
Your aside about Launchpad being non-free oversimplies the issue. Launchpad is non-distributed software and so is similar to Google. It’s proprietary, but not non-free. Others have said, I think correctly, that software like Launchpad is free in the letter, if not the spirit of free software. Others, like RMS, have said that the non-distributed nature of Launchpad is not a major problem at all. I’m not making an argument either way here — I will elsewhere later — but I’m trying to explain that things are not as clear or settled as your two-work treatment might make them sound.