Linux vs. Binary Blobs, or Ideology vs. Reality
Even Linux distributions that contain only open-source applications, it turns out, often depend on proprietary firmware. Without binary blobs, common hardware like Atheros and Broadcom-based wireless cards, for example, would not work with distributions like Ubuntu.
In other words, almost all of us, whether we realize it or not, still depend on proprietary software in one way or another. This presents a conundrum for developers, and Byfield’s article discusses their various responses (Ubuntu’s solution is to include proprietary firmware by default, but make it easy for users to remove if desired.)
Ideology and Pragmatism
But the larger question, perhaps, is whether or not software freedom really matters so much to mainstream Linux users in the first place.
In the beginning, many Linux adoptees tended to be of geekier stock and were willing to fight and die in order to keep source code public. It was these ideological and technically competent people who made Linux the viable desktop operating system that it is.
I know plenty of Ubuntu users today, however, who aren’t really sure what source code is, and who couldn’t care less whether proprietary firmware is involved in the operation of their wireless card or printer.
They’re attracted to Linux by pragmatic, not ideological, considerations: above all, its stability, lack of cost and (for all practical purposes) immunity to malware.
As distributions like Ubuntu strive to embrace a less geeky userbase, the very relevance of the binary-blob debate to the viability of desktop Linux is called into question. Wouldn’t our resources be better spent fixing bugs and improving hardware compatibility, rather than squabbling over non-free firmware and trying to figure out ways to avoid binary blobs?
Although I had no idea what open-source really meant when I first made the switch to Linux, I’ve learned to believe in the principles of free software. It just makes sense.
On the other hand, my number-one priority while using a computer is getting work done.* Whenever possible, I prefer to do that using free software. But if I need a few binary blobs in order to get my hardware working, I don’t let it ruin my day.
I think that most people, with the exception of those in the Richard-Stallman circle, feel the same way. If there’s no alternative, they prefer to be pragmatic and use non-free software.
I hope that Ubuntu will continue its efforts to provide users as much choice as possible when it comes to binary blobs in the kernel. At the same time, I hope that developers will continue to put pragmatism first. Free software is great, but an easy-to-use, dependable machine is more important.
*Or procrastinating, but I need a working computer for that, too.
WorksWithU Contributing Blogger Christopher Tozzi is a PhD student at a major U.S. university. Tozzi has extensive hands-on experience with Ubuntu Server Edition and Ubuntu Desktop Edition. WorksWithU is updated multiple times per week. Don’t miss a single post. Sign up for our RSS and Twitter feeds (available now) and newsletter (launching January 2009).