Last week at the Ubuntu Developer Summit the release goals for Feisty Fawn-scheduled to appear April 2007-were discussed and drawn up. Ubuntu's next version is aiming for some pretty good features such as a bullet proof X.org and network roaming. There's one change that bothers me to no end though: composite by default.
Composite window managers quite popular lately. They allow for some pretty impressive 3D desktop effects on–par if not better than MacOSX or the upcoming Windows Vista and on much cheaper hardware to boot. The problem is that, in order to reach this goal, they want to install and configure binary video drivers by default, after which a popup will appear on your screen that will try to educate you about the free v.s. non-free driver issue. I have nothing against 3D desktops (aside from the eye candy I see potential to do some really neat stuff with it) and with the free Intel drivers and reverse engineered ATI drivers it's perfectly possible to try to enable it by default. Doing it with proprietry, binary 3D drivers for nVidia cards and new ATI cards is a firm slap in the face of long term Ubuntu users everywhere though.
Ubuntu is a great desktop distro and has always worked very well for me, but that is not the only thing that drove me to Ubuntu. I also like the Ubuntu philosophy. After all, when Ubuntu started there were several other good desktop Linux distributions, but they all contained many non-free elements. Ubuntu on the desktop is to me what Debian is to me on the server: free, open and better. The philosophy is quite clear (emphasize mine):
Ubuntu is a community driven project to create an operating system and a full set of applications using free and open source software. At the core of the Ubuntu Philosophy of Software Freedom are these core philosophical ideals:
- 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.
- Every computer user should be able to use their software in the language of their choice.
- Every computer user should be given every opportunity to use software, even if they work under a disability.
Our philosophy is reflected in the software we produce and include in our distribution. As a result, the licensing terms of the software we distribute are measured against our philosophy, using the Ubuntu Licence Policy.
When you install Ubuntu almost all of the software installed already meets these ideals, and we are working to ensure that every single piece of software you need is available under a licence that gives you those freedoms. Currently, we make a specific exception for some "drivers" which are only available in binary form, without which many computers will not complete the Ubuntu installation. We place these in a restricted section of your system which makes them trivial to remove if you do not need them.
To recap: “Only free software, unless absolutely required”. I don't think that I am alone when I say that a 3D desktop is not an absolute requirement, so it looks like Ubuntu is abandoning it's own philosophy for Feisty Fawn. The arguement is that new converts are clamoring en masse for the 3D desktop. Enabling it by default will make many users switch from Windows or OSX to Ubuntu. There are two flaws in this reasoning:
- A 3D desktop—while great eye candy—will not solve some of the major problems new Ubuntu recruits have. Things like mp3 support, dvd and wmv playback, etcetera. Thát's what is holding back most Windows converts. The 3D desktop is just a very good looking bonus.
- User's rarely switch on their own. Most do because long time Linux users recommend them Ubuntu or even help them install it on their systems. What will happen when these long time users switch away and start recommending something else? Something more free? Ubuntu is drawing in the new crowds but it's partly doing so because the old hands recommend it.
All of a sudden gNewSense doesn't sound so rediculous. When I first read the gNewSense announcement I considered it mainly propaganda. It's just Ubuntu with the essential firmware mentioned in the Ubuntu Philosophy removed. But if Ubuntu starts shipping more than the required binary blobs then I will consider it a very viable alternative. Either that or just plain Debian.
The goals for composite by default and related goals are still in the drafing stage at the moment I write this. I really hope the Ubuntu developers come to their senses and support default composite only on free drivers. The popup from the driver education goal can work both ways. It can spawn a popup when I tick the “3D effects” tickbox on my preferences screen, detect I have an nVidia card and educate me about the free v.s. non-free issue. Only thén should it ask me if I still want to install the non-free drivers or if I prefer my system to remain Free. Thát is the proper way to handle it. Let free be the default and let users easily override it afterwards. Not the other way around.