July 28, 2006

First look: Freespire

Author: Nathan Willis

Freespire is the free offshoot of the proprietary Linspire Linux distribution, formerly an outside effort, but now produced by the company itself. The first beta release is available through the Freespire Web site, both as an CD-sized burnable ISO image and as a VMware Virtual Appliance. Despite its youth and inexperience, it already exhibits considerable polish.

Freespire is Debian-derived and uses KDE as its desktop environment. Both the beta and eventual 1.0 release are based on KDE 3.3 and the 2.6.13 kernel. According to the roadmap, these older components were selected in order to speed up delivery; shortly after Freespire is officially declared 1.0, newer versions of all the major components will go into the testing branch for Freespire 1.1.

Clicking and Running

Like the commercial version of Linspire, the default Freespire installation ships only a small set of applications; others are available through Linspire's Click-and-Run (CNR) service. The installed applications include the standbys: Firefox, Thunderbird, Gaim, OpenOffice.org, and a sizable bundle of media-centric apps for MP3 playing, CD ripping and burning, and BitTorrent downloads. It is light on games, supplying only what I would call office accessory grade amusements such as solitaire.

Of note among the installed programs are several proprietary apps -- the Gizmo VoIP client, RealPlayer, Adobe Flash, and the Mplayer plugin for Firefox, with QuickTime and Windows Media DLLs pre-installed. Two apps developed inside Linspire make an appearance -- Lsongs is an iTunes-like media player and Lphoto an iPhoto- or Picasa-like snapshot organizer. Linspire refers to both of these applications as open source, but the sources available on the Web site are noticeably out of date.

Despite its heritage as a "new user" distribution, Freespire is not unfriendly towards hackers and software developers. An xterm launcher occupies space number one on the task bar, and developer tools qualify for a top-level Programs menu. Only Emacs, Qt Designer, and some app called "vim" are installed by default, though far more accessible through CNR.

The pre-selected CNR-installable applications in every category are available via a CNR sub-menu in each category (e.g., Programs -> Games -> CNR). I found this to be a far more convenient method for finding these apps than launching the CNR client and browsing the repositories. Overall, I was pleased with the app selection, though there are several apps I hope will be promoted to the default install from their current CNR location. The GIMP, for instance, is the de facto image editing application in the Linux universe. Lphoto's Crop and Red-eye tools simply are not sufficient.

CNR is subscription-based service, starting at $20 per year, and is the same price for Freespire users as it is for Linspire customers. Anyone can sign up for a 30-day free trial. The service offers both proprietary and free applications, including most of the offerings familiar to experienced Linux users. In addition to the basic catalog, CNR furnishes customized application lists it calls "aisles." Aisles can be informative in nature (like the "recently updated" aisle) or created by individuals (like Amazon.com's Listmania feature).

If it seems pointless to create a "free" distribution of Linspire only to require that it depend on a for-pay service like CNR, there is good news. Freespire can use the entire chain of APT tools for software installation and package management, connecting to Linspire's repositories, completely free of charge.

Of course, CNR's claim to fame is its ease of use, and it is certainly far friendlier than apt-get or even Synaptic. CNR presents only human-vetted selections, and accompanies them with detailed explanations and screenshots. For the techno-timid market Linspire seeks to serve, it is undoubtedly better.

But then again, Freespire is intended to serve a less timid market. Certainly installing Synaptic from the command line is no great burden, but I think it makes more sense to install it by default. If the Freespire project is truly community-driven a Linspire advertises it, expect to see that in future releases.

Less really is more!

Not only does Linspire not ship with APT and Synaptic, it is in fact limited to using CNR alone for adding software. Add to that the fact that both distros ship with the same closed-source components, such as video drivers, MP3 support, and proprietary applications like Flash and Gizmo, and the bottom line is that the "free" Freespire actually includes considerably more than the commercial Linspire.

Perhaps Linspire sees more money to be made in giving away the distro itself and selling access to the CNR service. Such a business plan would make sense; with almost all competing distros available at no cost, the initial price tag could scare off a lot of potential customers. Better to get them in the door, then start selling.

The Freespire Web site, in fact, describes plans to begin work on two distinct Freespire distros: the existing Linspire-like Freespire, and Freespire OSS Edition, with no proprietary code whatsoever. It seems more likely that for-pay Linspire will disappear at some point than that the company will choose to maintain three distinct distros when two are almost identical.

But regardless of whether that is Linspire's scheme, today the Freespire distro offers a better value than its commercial counterpart. No cost up front, CNR for those interested in paying monthly for the convenience, and traditional package management for those who don't. The company sponsoring its development has taken flak over the years from free software advocates, but in Freespire it has put together a solid distribution.


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