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March 13, 2009
Someone on the Ubuntu forums started an interesting thread today asking, “Can you manage to use only free software on your pc?” It got me thinking about my dependency on proprietary software, and whether I’d ever really be able to get it out of my life entirely.
I use three computers (in the narrow sense of the word, which excludes my cell phone) on a semi-daily basis: a desktop at home, an old Dell laptop that I use for taking notes in the library and a workstation in my employer’s office. All of these machines run Ubuntu, but there are bits and pieces of closed-source code tacked on. Here’s a breakdown of the proprietary components.
The most obvious piece of proprietary software sitting on my machines is Windows. My desktop still has an XP partition, which hasn’t seen action in six months. It also contains a Windows system installed in VirtualBox on which I used to play old games, but I haven’t touched those in a while, either.
Because I use them so rarely, I’m pretty sure I could get rid of both Windows systems without any serious repercussions. I might miss being able to play Age of Kings from time to time inside VirtualBox, but it runs in wine now anyway (although not very well, the last time I tried). I can fairly conclude that I could be entirely Windows-free with no real problems.
Most of my hardware has full-featured open-source drivers, thanks to Intel. The only notable exceptions are an Atheros wireless card in my desktop powered by the madwifi modules, which depend on a proprietary HAL, and a Broadcom chip in the laptop that requires closed-source firmware.
Although I use madwifi at the moment because it’s the default in Ubuntu 8.10, my Atheros card would work with the ath5k driver if I installed it. An open HAL is available for ath5k, so I could go proprietary-free with no problems here.
My Broadcom device is more troubling. There’s currently no way to make it work without proprietary firmware. That should change in the near future, as open firmware for Broadcom chips is in rapid development. But for the time being, I guess I’m dependent on closed code if I want wireless on my laptop.
All my BIOS programs are also closed, as far as I know. It’s possible that I could replace them with OpenBIOS, but I’ve never tried.
Beyond rarely used instances of Windows and hardware drivers, I was able to think of only three additional closed-source components of my sytems. These are Adobe’s flash plugin, media decoders for formats like mp3 and Microsoft’s fonts.
I have no need for the proprietary fonts. They’re only installed because they were part of the ubuntu-restricted-extras package. I’d be happy to get them off the system if I knew how to do that easily.
In principle, I could also live without proprietary codecs, but it might not be easy. It would mean not being able to play a lot of media files, and while I don’t need to listen to mp3s, it’s nice. I’m not sure I’d be able to give up closed-source software on the media front without being quite unhappy about it.
Adobe’s flash plugin would be similarly difficult to lose. There are open-source alternatives like gnash, but I’ve never had satisfactory experiences with them in the past. gnash is rapidly improving and will hopefully become a viable alternative very soon, but for the time being, abandoning Adobe’s plugin is not possible, since it would mean no longer being able to view flash-based content on the Internet, which I used on a daily basis.
I could get rid of most of the proprietary software that’s still stuck on my machines, but I couldn’t give up the Broadcom firmware, flash plugin or codecs without losing important functionality. As open-source answers to these problems are developed, I hope this situation will change soon. But for the time being, I’m afraid that proprietary software still fills a hole that nothing else can effectively replace.
Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.
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