Mark Shuttleworth: “All the applications in Ubuntu are free software”

The most recent edition of “Questions please…” features an interview with Mark Shuttleworth, head and chief sponsor of Canonical and the Ubuntu GNU/Linux distribution. The license for the recording is as follows:

Verbatim copying and redistribution of these entire recordings is permitted worldwide and without royalty provided this notice is preserved.

Thanks to Questions Please… for making the recording available in a format everyone can play and licensing it to share.

About 12m15s into the recording, the topic of proprietary software came up:

Jonathan Roberts: Do you think there is a danger in trying to attract new users by trying to add proprietary bits to GNU/Linux?

Mark Shuttleworth: Yeah, very much so. So we’ve always resisted the temptation to add proprietary applications. And we have tons of users who wanted Java before Sun had said they would GPL Java, and they still haven’t finished the process of GPLing Java so it’s not completely in Ubuntu. Similarly with Flash and Adobe Acrobat and other sort of, proprietary bits and pieces that people really really do want that we just won’t add to the distro. We absolutely see Ubuntu as a way of introducing people to free software applications; to a complete free software environment.

Now we draw the line in terms of hardware enabling and we draw the line quite hard. We say that […] the driver that it takes to enable the hardware that you bought we will ship. And so we’ve always shipped wireless drivers, for example, and we’re discussing turning on by default the 3D drivers and all this would make things like Compiz and some of the newer video applications and so on just work out of the box. Other distributions take a different view, some say that firmware is unacceptable, some say that firmware is acceptable. So Debian, for example, in all of its recent releases, has made an exception to its free software guidelines for its kernel package to allow it to ship firmware, which is essentially proprietary software. So different distributions have taken different views on that and we take—our dividing line is between kernel and applications. All the applications in Ubuntu are free software only and we stick to that despite suitable pressure to do differently.

Jonathan Roberts: And that’s a good—in my opinion, that’s the best approach I think.

Ubuntu boasts about distributing Opera for Ubuntu users—all the software Ubuntu users need to run the proprietary Opera web browser is available “with a couple of clicks” according to their press release. Ubuntu also claimed that “Ubuntu will always be free, and will not have restrictive licenses associated with it.”.

How can we make sense of these diametrically opposed claims?

Ubuntu engages in the same cognitive dissonance as Debian when it comes to software distributed under their aegis. Ubuntu wants you to believe that an Ubuntu software repository distributing non-free software isn’t really part of Ubuntu.

Leaving this at “different distributions have taken different views on that” means putting aside the consequences of that decision; no discussion of the effect on users and communities. Placing out of the box functionality above software freedom carries ethical consequences, consequences we are frequently told to dismiss if it receives any discussion at all (no doubt a direct result of the open source movement’s philosophy which dissuades such discussion). A previous “Questions please…” interview with Richard Stallman addresses increasing social solidarity.

Another GNU/Linux distribution, one derived from Ubuntu, called gNewSense contains no proprietary software. gNewSense’s maintainers make good faith efforts to remove proprietary software from their distribution and repositories (including proprietary firmware). If any proprietary software is discovered in gNewSense it is removed and an update is issued. As a result, it’s a good bet that any hardware which works with gNewSense will work with any other operating system.

I am running gNewSense GNU/Linux on the machine on which I edit this blog so I can better understand what this distribution has to offer. I find I’m able to do most of the tasks modern-day computer users want (I don’t play many fancy video games, so I don’t know how well it works with most games). With some research on the gNewSense mailing list, I found a wireless card that works with gNewSense out of the box (as I understand it, some Ralink wireless cards require no firmware at all so I avoid all the issues involving firmware entirely). The practical concessions I have to make to use this distribution are few and far between. I understand that Fedora GNU/Linux is in a similar position, and it’s possible to install other distributions in such a way that one only uses free software on them.