April 24, 2006

Linspire launches Freespire

Author: Joe Barr and Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

SAN DIEGO -- Linspire president and CEO Kevin Carmony announced today during his keynote at the Linux Desktop Summit plans for a free version of Linspire called Freespire. Carmony says that Freespire will be open to community contributions, with a completely open source version and a version that includes proprietary software.

According to Linspire, the Freespire project will be governed by a Leadership Board made up of prominent members of the Linux community, such as Free Standards Group CTO and Debian founder Ian Murdock, Win4Lin CEO Jim Curtin, Andrew Betts, Debian developer Martin Michlmayr, and several others. Carmony says he's the only person from Linspire who will be on the board. In addition, the project will have a Community Board and Technology Board to provide direction in those areas. Linspire also launched the Freespire forums today to give community members a chance to start discussing the project.

However, don't dash to Freespire.org looking for ISOs just yet. The company doesn't plan to release code until August. Carmony says that the delay is intentional to get people "involved in the dialog and vision of this project before they start worrying about the technology."

If the name Freespire sounds familiar, it's because Betts used the name first -- publicly, anyway. Betts had been working on a project taken from freely available Linspire source code that he dubbed Freespire, but Linspire asked Betts to rename the project, which he did before stopping development on it altogether. Carmony now says that the reason Betts was asked to abandon the Freespire name is because Linspire had plans to use it for this project.

What will be in Freespire

According to Carmony, Freespire will be much like Linspire, though the community may choose to add components -- such as GNOME -- that aren't available with Linspire now.

The distribution will also look and act more like a traditional Linux distro. For example, Linspire has been criticized, often, for setting the system up to run as root by default. Carmony says that Freespire will be more like Ubuntu in this regard, requiring a normal user to be set up by default.

Freespire will also install development tools, and multiple workspaces will not be hidden from the user by default as they are in Linspire. Carmony noted that Linspire's user testing showed that many users would be confused by multiple workspaces in testing, but that it made sense to expose the feature for experienced Linux users.

Users will have the option of downloading the Freespire distro with or without proprietary software included, such as audio and video codecs not usually included in distros such as Ubuntu and Fedora. However, users will still have to pony up a few bucks (or download libdvdcss) to watch their DVDs on Linux. Freespire won't ship with software to allow DVD playback, though Carmony says users can buy it through Linspire's Click and Run (CNR) service.

The company also plans to open source CNR, which would allow other distributions to incorporate CNR into their distros and use it with Linspire's store, or to create their own. During Carmony's keynote, the announcement that Linspire would open source CNR received more applause than the Freespire announcement itself. We asked Carmony if Linspire planned to offer other projects or companies a cut of revenue in order to point a CNR client to Linspire's store, but he says that they have not yet thought about profit-sharing with other companies.

However, Jeremy White, CEO of CodeWeavers, says that it's unlikely that other companies will adopt CNR. "My gut reaction is to say no; every distro has their own favorite solution to this problem, and to change would be to lose differentiation. But certainly I could see a smaller distro taking a hard look, or perhaps it'll pop up somewhere unexpected.

"It's kind of neat; by open sourcing it, someone may well find a cool use for it that no one else imagined."

The distribution will be based on components taken from Debian Sid and Ubuntu, and Carmony says that they plan to ensure that Linspire and Freespire are Linux Standard Base compliant. However, Carmony says that they will not be basing the distro on the DCC Alliance, though Linspire is a member.

Linspire is not the first distribution to make available a free download with proprietary pieces. Novell, for instance, allows users to download SUSE Linux 10 for free with Java, RealPlayer, Adobe Acrobat Reader, and other proprietary components or without them.

What's in it for Linspire?

It doesn't take much imagination to see what the Linux community gets out of a free version of Linspire, but what does the company hope to gain from making Freespire available?

For one thing, Carmony says that the company is hoping to broaden the audience for Linspire. He noted that Linspire has faced problems in selling Linspire to OEMs that were interested in a Linux distribution because the engineers were familiar with distros such as Mandriva, but not Linspire.

Carmony also says that the company wants to get the community to be "more open-minded about binary drivers" and proprietary software. He says that a completely open source operating system is not well-suited for a common audience, and noted that when many users try to switch from Windows to Linux, they find that it's missing features they're used to with Windows, such as multimedia codecs. "More and more, the community needs what Linspire brings, and we need what the community brings."

It may also be that Linspire is bowing to peer pressure. White notes that "all the distros are essentially going this route; many distros laughed at Red Hat when they started Fedora, but now it seems like everyone is doing it." He also says that it will be good for Linspire, if the company manages to expand the reach of CNR.

Linspire is also aiming outside the Linux developer community, according to Carmony. "We're not going after Ubuntu developers, we're going after Windows developers."

A lot of effort is going toward bringing Linux to "ordinary" users, so it will be interesting to see if Linspire helps to crack that nut. White says that Linspire is "trying to bring out a very practical side of Linux," and that the willingness to ship proprietary software is "an acknowledgment of the basic user as the paramount driving force."

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