November 10, 2006

gNewSense joins list of FSF-approved distros

Author: Bruce Byfield

If users look beyond the splash screens and other branding, they will find almost nothing in the recently announced GNewSense distribution that is not already available in the Ubuntu Dapper Drake release. In fact, according to Brian Brazil and Paul O'Malley, the Irish free software advocates behind the distribution, users may find that GNewSense detects less of their hardware than Ubuntu does -- particularly their wireless cards. So why would anyone use GNewSense?

The answer is not technical so much as political. Unlike most distributions, the goal of gNewSense is not usability or any other technical issue, but to offer a GNU/Linux distribution that contains only free software. The pursuit of this goal means removing non-free firmware from the Linux kernel, and not linking to non-free package repositories. Brazil and O'Malley are hoping that at least some users will accept the loss of convenience in return for the satisfaction of using a distribution in keeping with their ideals. And, because of the developers' willingness to make this tradeoff, the small distribution is already receiving support from the Free Software Foundation, and has been listed among the half dozen distributions that the FSF promotes as being truly free.

The idea for gNewSense began when O'Malley heard a discussion between Richard Stallman and Mark Shuttleworth about the possibility of a free version of Ubuntu at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis in November 2005. Inspired by the idea, O'Malley organized IRC and email discussions in which he called the project such names as Gnusiance, gnubuntu, and Ubuntu-libre, but, while many appreciated the idea, no developers came forward. In April 2006, O'Malley mentioned the idea to Brazil, who began work in June, after he finished his final exams at Trinity College in Dublin.

gNewSense Desktop - click to enlarge

gNewSense is not the only distribution to raise concerns about proprietary elements in GNU/Linux, but Brazil and O'Malley decided early on to work independently of their predecessors. Brazil says that he is aware of the prolonged discussions about the issue in Debian that recently ended in a general resolution in which members voted to delay taking action until after the next release. However, as far as he is concerned, that decision means that Debian members "had pretty much decided that they would have non-free software."

The pair also rejected investigating whether they could work as a sub-project within Ubuntu, as Kubuntu and Xubuntu do. "Ubuntu does contain non-free stuff, and they're put a lot of effort into making sure that it works nicely," Brazil says, "so it seems rather unlikely that they would do something like [GNewSense]." At any rate, Brazil explains, linking with the Ubuntu repositories would be contrary to the goals of gNewSense, "because there would still be the non-free stuff available from Ubuntu."

Nor did Brazil and O'Malley consider building on UTUTO-e, the distribution that the FSF has endorsed most strongly in the past, including personal recommendations from Richard Stallman. Despite considerable improvements in the latest release, UTUTO-e continues to suffer from technical problems. "I downloaded UTUTO-e," O'Malley says, "but I kind of got lost in the install process."

The FSF continues to include UTUTO-e on its list of free distributions, "but we don't want to limit ourselves," says executive director Peter Brown. "We're trying to pay attention to all free distributions."

To aid gNewSense, the FSF contributed a build machine loaded with the free LinuxBIOS, as well as server space for the project's mailing lists and publicity. Seemingly wary after the overenthusiasm over UTUTO-e, the FSF stops short of any official endorsement of GNewSense, but Brown is personally pleased with the first release.

"What's good about this distribution," Brown says, "is that pretty near everyone can get up and running with it, and it's usable. UTUTO-e does have English language support, but it is being mostly developed with the Spanish language in mind, so there's an issue there for some people. gNewSense, clearly, from an average user's point of view, is a significant step beyond that."

In addition, Brown describes the new distribution as "a progression from Ubuntu. The developers have moved further towards our ideals. We have a distribution that has added freedoms that weren't there before."

In the news release announcing the distribution, Ted Teah, free software directory maintainer at the FSF, describes gNewSense as having "a commitment to be 100% free." However, how free it is in practice remains uncertain, even to its founders. Although gNewSense publishes a list of proprietary firmware that has been removed, Brazil admits, "I'm not sure exactly how free we are at the moment." The problem, he explains, is not just in identifying non-free elements, but also elements that point to them.

However, the development team promises to make good faith efforts to remove proprietary elements as they are reported. "If someone comes along and finds something, we will endeavor to remove that," O'Malley says. An issue currently being discussed on the mailing list, for example, is whether Firefox should be replaced with a rebranded version or an alternative browser, given the Mozilla Foundation's insistence of control of how its trademarks are used.

In addition to maintaining a free distribution, the gNewSense team also plans to improve the artwork for the distribution, as well as its security handling -- which is currently dependent on Ubuntu's -- and automation. Team members also hope to include some unspecified GNewSense software.

For now, a particular concern seems to be documentation. In a slide show on the CD, O'Malley describes building a distribution as a "black art." As a result of their own frustration with the lack of guidelines, the pair has included on their Web site a page outlining their efforts in what Brazil calls "haiku-format." Eventually, Brazil's goal is to ensure that "everything we've done is fully scripted and documented, so it is possible for someone else to come along and do another distribution based on our work." Other priorities, the team makes clear, depend on the volunteers that the project attracts.

"There have been many reactions to what we're doing," O'Malley says, "from approval, to understanding but lack of approval to 'Oh my gosh, they're going to ruin everything,' to pure tinfoil-hat stuff and back." For the most part, though, reaction seems to be positive. A small but active community seems to be forming on the distribution's mailing list, and the FSF reports nearly 5,000 downloads of the CD image in the first four days after the distribution was announced.

For the FSF, the release of a distribution that it can recommend without reservations is an end in itself. However, gNewSense is also an important step toward its long-range goal of persuading manufacturers to produce computers that run completely free software, from the operating system and drivers down to the BIOS. Buoyed by both the release of gNewSense and the plans to use the LinuxBIOS in the One Laptop Per Child project, Brown says, "We believe we're getting there slowly but surely. We're getting to the point where maybe in 12 months we're going to have those computers."


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