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Less Opensource Desktop

Posted by evanx on November 16, 2006 at 4:07 AM PST

The different Linux distributions shouldn't be Fedora, Ubuntu, or Suse. They should be Server Edition, Developer Edition and Desktop Edition.

Server Edition will include JEE, PostgreSQL et al, Desktop will include OpenOffice, Java, Gnome/KDE et al, and the Developer Edition, Eclipse and um, Netbeans!? One would hope so!


The Non-Free Trap

The common approach of Linux distros has been to exclude all non-free binaries, to encourage vendors to release their drivers as opensource, and simultaneously encourage opensource developers to implement alternative opensource drivers, eg. for nVidia cards, Flash, and what-not. In the meantime, users have to jump through hoops like adding non-free repositories, downloading tarballs from vendors' sites and such.

This wouldn't be such a trainsmash if the vendors made it easy for new Linux users (coming from a Windows background most likely) to install "essential" non-free goodies without being forced to drop into the command-line. For example, why don't they install a "Start Here" icon on the desktop with "Click here to enable the non-free repository and launch Synaptic. And click here to install Flash once you have downloaded that tarball from Adoobie."

For this reason, the opensource desktop is currently a non-starter for Joe Bloggs that hasn't used Linux before. And surely those are the people one should be trying to attract to the opensource desktop!?

Rock and Hard Place

So the Linux vendors are afraid that by distributing non-free drivers, or at least making it easy to install these, they would be discouraging vendors to opensource their drivers and discouraging the development of alternative opensource drivers.

I respect and understand that. But i think they are making a mistake, and missing an opportunity. Having said that, it's not every distribution that needs to focus on the consumer desktop. Linspire, Mandriva and Ubuntu is enough. Others like Red Hat and Suse are focussed on the data center, and that's fine.

Common Binary Distribution License

So what's next for these distros that are actually trying to compete in the consumer desktop space?

I think they need to come up with the "CBDL" ie. the Common Binary Distribution License, like Sun's DLJ. This license would allow Linux vendors to repackage and redistribute non-free software, eg. via their default non-free repository, if not on their LiveCD. Clearly the licensors might impose some conditions, eg. before, during or after installation, direct the user to this webpage on our website, and/or display this advert of our products.

I'm sure nVidia, Adobe et al want to distribute their free-to-use Linux drivers and software as broadly as possible, and if that comes with free packaging and testing, free distribution, free marketing, and easy installation of their software for the end user, then where's the downside? All they have to do is publish their binaries under the CBDL.

This mechanism could also be used for opensource software, eg. Netbeans. I mean, is Netbeans in Ubuntu repositories, and installable via Synaptic? "But why not?"

As long as people who are installing Linux for the first time don't get accelerated video, flash and what-not, and can never get this without dropping into the command-line, then excluding IT professionals, can the opensource desktop realistically ever be anything other than a hobbyist's desktop?

In the meantime, consumers will be choosing between Vista Viao's, MacBooks and MacMini's, and be very happy with their purchases.