19 Sep 2009 pabs3   » (Master)

Delving into personal software freedom

Over on Planet Ubuntu there is a VRMS meme winding down. Usually I tend to think web log aggregator memes are an abomination, however, this one is a little more interesting, especially if Debian folk pick it up. It seems like many Planet Ubuntu posters require some non-free stuff, examples include; graphics and other drivers/firmware, Flash (Gnash/Swfdec aren't there yet), Sun Java (despite OpenJDK), RAR 3.0 archives, LHZ archives (despite jlha), Microsoft fonts (despite ttf-liberation), icon themes, ICC profiles, mind mapping, support for codec DLLs from Windows, VirtualBox drivers for Windows, the Opera web browser, games and other things. For Debian users, the popcon information pretty much confirms the above issues. Some other stuff Debian users use that isn't in Debian include; patented codecs, skype, acroread, the non-free version of VirtualBox and more.

Next, lets get in on the getting your meme on part. On my Dell Inspiron 6400 laptop I have following Debian non-free/contrib stuff installed; firmware-iwlwifi, gcc-doc, gcc-doc-base, gcc-4.3-doc, autoconf-doc, gdb-doc, make-doc. On my OpenMoko FreeRunner phone I have nothing installed from Debian non-free/contrib. My wireless router and ADSL modem don't run Debian. The wireless router is a MIPS-based Netgear WGR614L (that is marketed as supporting DD-WRT, OpenWRT and Tomato) so I could conceivably install OpenWRT etc or Debian on it, but I haven't gotten around to that yet. The ADSL modem is a MIPS-based Siemens SpeedStream 4200, but it looks like that would require a significant amount of effort to get running FLOSS.

Lets ponder my laptop freeness a bit more. The docs are all FSF-free, but not DFSG-free. It appears they are not DFSG-free because the FSF will not allow 28 words of FSF/GNU advertising to be removed (I'm not sure if Debian or the FSF is more pedantic). I'm not aware of any DFSG-free alternatives to them and I don't particularly care about the restrictions. My wireless card is an Intel 3945ABG mini PCI card that requires the kernel to upload the iwlwifi firmware before it works. Intel refuse to release firmware source code under a free license, citing FCC requirements. I'm not aware of any free firmware (or firmware reverse engineering efforts) for this device so the only alternative is to use wired Ethernet or buy another wireless card. Ethernet wires everywhere would be very inconvenient, so I've been thinking about trying to replace the card or laptop as soon as I am able. Since Atheros has released GPLv2 firmware for its AR9170 802.11n USB chipset I'll probably get something released by Atheros. I wonder why the FCC didn't prevent Atheros from releasing modifiable firmware, perhaps Intel will change their position too. So, what other software is on my laptop apart from Debian? Lets see, nothing on the HD apart from GRUB 2, /boot containing a Linux image/initrd from Debian and the LUKS partition containing swap and the Debian ext3 rootfs. Coreboot laptop support seems to be in the very early stages so I have no alternative to the supplied Dell BIOS at the moment. There is also the CPU microcode and other firmware installed in the various devices on the system, at least the HD, Ethernet, Bluetooth, GPU, DVD drive etc. have some kind of firmware in them. Some of this firmware is updatable using software from the Dell Linux repositories.

Lets ponder my phone freeness a bit more. On it I have two copies of the u-boot bootloader (one in the protected NOR flash), u-boot is free. The NAND flash has an old Qt Extended Improved (QTEI) install that I need to copy stuff off and wipe. I also have a 4GB microSD card containing QTEI, Debian, FDOM and SHR. Now that QtMoko has brought QTEI to Debian packages I can probably ditch the QTEI install. I read that OM2009 is being merged into SHR so I can get rid of FDOM. That leaves SHR and Debian/QtMoko (nothing non-free). IIRC SHR does contain some firmware for devices that the OpenMoko FreeRunner doesn't contain, but that will get removed as Linux upstream moves more and more of that into linux-firmware.git. Nothing more on the main flash or microSD storage, so what else? The OpenMoko contains lots of hardware, but the main problematic devices here are the AR6000 Wi-Fi chip and the TI Calypso GSM device. The AR6000 is an issue because the firmware embedded in the chip is non-free and FullMAC so it is hard to add new features like AP mode or improve the connection quality/etc. In addition the firmware currently on the device is a development version of a 2.0 version (1.x was apparently broken) and further development does not seem to be happening yet. Since Atheros GPLed the AR9170 firmware I idly wonder if they could be convinced to release the source and GPL the AR6000 firmware. Perhaps a life-size gold statue of RMS would help there. The GSM device is problematic because of various bugs in the firmware. It apparently is an ARM chip with Nucleos, so perhaps uCLinux or something could be ported to it or written for it. There has been at least one discussion about hacking the GSM firmware (thar be dragons). Searching for some keywords extracted from the end of the first mail in that thread lead to some interesting results indeed.

Lets ponder my network freeness a bit more. I should allocate some time to investigate putting Debian on my wireless router and ADSL modem. These generally just work except the ADSL modem reboots itself a lot during the summer. The just-works status of these devices means that messing with them is problematic in case I brick them (luckily I have a spare for the ADSL modem though). I presume OpenWRT and similar have replacements for all the software on my wireless router, drivers may be an issue though. I use gmail for reading email lists, mainly because of intertia, cheapness and because the interface has no GUI FLOSS peers yet (sup-mail exists for console use). TangoGPS, OpenStreetMap and other tools are slowly replacing my use of Google Maps, although I imagine routing will remain an issue for many years yet. One of the tech groups I'm involved in uses Plesk as a hosting control panel, mainly out of intertia, I'm not familiar with any FLOSS replacement though. Some of the upstream FLOSS projects I'm involved with use sourceforge as a hosting platform. There is a certain level of lock-in with SF.net, most of the data is easily exportable though.

Lets ponder my software freeness in comparison to Planet Ubuntu posters. I have no freeness issues with drivers at the moment, however firmware seems likely to have freeness issues for a long time to come. I've avoided the need for the Adobe Flash Player by using swfdec and clive for downloading videos for some sites. swfdec works OK for some sites, some that I care about where it doesn't work and clive cannot download video include Vimeo, abc.net.au and sbs.com.au. For Vimeo you can download raw video if you have a login, but I do not, bugmenot is unreliable and Vimeo doesn't seem to be accepting new registrations. SBS I watch on television and ABC I get no reception so I just don't watch it. Java isn't an issue now that OpenJDK exists. I sometimes need to extract RAR 3.0 archives, which I do by copying the files to a friend's Windows machine or using a RAR extractor website. There is no free implementation of a RAR 3.0 extractor yet. I seem to remember that there is source code for a non-free extractor so presumably a clean-room documentation and reimplementation effort could fix this. I don't encounter LHZ files, but jlha-utils is available for if I do. I feel no need to install Microsoft fonts since the Liberation fonts and DejaVu meet my general font needs and Debian contains fonts covering all the scripts of Unicode (except for about half the huge amount of Han characters). In my music collection, only the Voxware audio codec and DigiTrakker MDL files are not supported by Rhythmbox, but I don't really miss those few tracks. I rarely have audio/video codec issues with video from the Internet. I don't have a use for Opera. Thanks in part to the efforts of the Debian games team, games from Debian main (such as warzone2100) satisfy my gaming needs. I just don't use Skype.

Overall, I'm generally happy with my level of software freedom. My main strategy for preventing regressions in my software freedom is to just avoid doing things that require non-free software. The most problematic FLOSS issues for me are Flash support (adoption of the HTML5 video tag will resolve this for me), RAR 3.0 support and firmware. Please feel free to contact me with any comments or questions.

Happy Software Freedom Day everyone!

Syndicated 2009-09-19 06:01:31 from Advogato

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