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December 9th, 2014

Of Distros & Donnybrooks

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in a slightly different form on The Blog of Helios on Monday, October 25, 2010.

We’re all aware of the Distro Wars. Some of us are bloodied warriors…Others sit on the sidelines experiencing mixed degrees of amusement. I’ve been both, but more the latter these days.

Arguments over who’s distro is best have subsided over the past few years. Many of us realize that arguing over which distro is best is an exercise in futility. It’s akin to arguing over religion or politics. Nothing I say will change your mind and the same can be said for any arguments you may present Still, there are those who want to carry the war forward.

FOSSReglue and our project before it,The HeliOS Project; has been a long-time user of Mint…and not for any other reason than it fits our needs. As my friend Eric Johnson says:

“Operating Systems are tools, not religions.”

It wouldn’t take me long to drill down into any given Microsoft eula and find points to disagree with Eric, but the truth is, most “average” computer users don’t care about their “freedom”…and when we preach to them, many of us come off as fanatics. The concept of “free software” is foreign to them. To them, “freedom” means they don’t have to pay for it. So yeah, we can come off as fanatics.

Trust me, I know. I was a long time card-carrying member of Fanatics-R-Us.

Lately though we’ve been working with tools to shorten the install and tweak process on our installed computers. On a good year, we can place 200 computers. That’s a lot of work, not to mention the time it takes to get one computer out the door.

We have great and generous volunteers like Randy Noseworthy do various respins of the Mint distro for us but their time availability isn’t always in sync with important changes we make in our remixes. Truthfully, some of the methods used to create these respins is above my pay grade or the time available I have to work with them.

Of course, when we look for a base distro to work from, we choose the Ubuntu/Mint types of debian-based distros.

There’s a lot to be said for working with the most popular products. Tools to do the respins, specifically the application UCK, It will only work on Ubuntu and sometimes on Ubuntu-based distros.The ease and speed that UCK allows one to do a custom distro is fantastic.

But it is, again and unfortunately, Ubuntu-centric. But as usual, I’ve taken the long way around to get to my point.

Recently, I burned the ISO file for another Ubuntu-based distro. We’ve played with this distro in the past and found it to our liking for one simple reason. Like Mint, It makes available some of the codecs and “restricted” goodies that the regular releases of many distros does not.

Let’s say W32 Codecs, Nvidia and ATI prop drivers, libdvdcss and the Oracle version of Java 7 or 8.

Yeah, I know, I know…iced tea this and iced tea that, openjdk7 this and openjdk7 that…I appreciate the effort but many of our Reglue kids complain that their homework portal won’t work because java isn’t installed. Honestly? I don’t have time to address those problems. If it means that I have to use the closed source solution, then that’s just the way it’s gonna be. Open solutions also have serious limitations in many banking and secure websites…it just doesn’t get the job done for many online applications. At least for the time being.

So I did a respin of this distro and asked a friend to boot to the image and give me some feedback. Holy crap, you would have thought I spit on a statue of The Virgin Mary.


Not only did I get the full Stallmanista rant, I was told because of my unrepentant use of proprietary and closed drivers and applications, that I didn’t really have a place in the “Linux Community”

Oh really?

First off, I don’t think anyone have a higher regard for the courage and tenacity of Richard Stallman then me. But as I said in a recent comment on a forum concerning the same topic:

Sometimes dogma has to give way to pragmatism. And as far as anyone not “having a place” in the Linux Community? Oh yeah…let’s embrace freedom. As long as freedom fits your particular idea of what freedom is. No prop drivers or codecs.


Then you are truly free. Not to mention that your bank won’t start a session without Oracle Java or flash. Or that your computer games won’t play because the Nvidia card you have in your computer won’t work. Or that your DVD optical drive thinks the DVD you just put into it is a glazed donut.

No…one of the biggest problems we have as Linux Advocates is that we hand someone the latest *Name distro here* CD and walk away…thinking we’ve done the right thing.

No we haven’t.

Peek in on the Live CD user as he tries to get Hulu or Pogo.com to play…or his homework portal to work. Watch his frustration as Miniclip.com complains about no flash. The pop up Adobe flash install fails on a live CD by the way. Hell, the pop up Adobe flash install fails on many hard drive installs…even when it reports itself to be the correct Linux version.

So what we have is a pissed off user who ejects the CD, throws it in his newly-made coaster pile and joins The Army of Linux Sucks.

Just a suggestion…when you give out live CD’s for people to use, don’t let your inner fanboy get in the way of what you are trying to accomplish. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what many of us are doing. And when the New User complains that it didn’t work for them, we write them off as computer illiterate and completely undeserving of our efforts.

The worst part is that many of us know there are distros out there that address these problems but we won’t give them out due to our distro allegiances. And often, our fanatic hatred of all-things-closed. So in reality, it isn’t Linux that failed the new user. It’s us…clinging onto our Free-Or-Die dogma. So yeah, in a perfect world that would be great. But it’s not and some of us rather have others embrace the the Free-Or-Die philosophy.

Instead of being introduced to a better way of using their computers. That’s a damned shame.

Just sayin’…

Ken Starks writes and publishes The Blog of Helios, a finalist in our Best FOSS or Linux Blog competition. In addition, he's the person behind the Reglue project, which refurbishes older computers and gives them to disadvantaged school kids in the Austin, Texas area. Follow him on Twitter @Reglue

4 comments to Of Distros & Donnybrooks

  • Mike

    It’s a balancing act.

    I know all too well the compromises needed in the name of pragmatism. My kids’ linux machines require some proprietary programs because of school requirements. One kid prefers open source and it bothers him, while another could not care less.

    There is however a danger in conceding too quickly to proprietary software in the name of convenience. The danger is that the continued usage of bad software like Flash will encourage and prolong its life, instead of promoting free and open alternatives. Sometimes it is worth a little pain now to gain a greater good later, but that is a choice each individual must make for themselves.

    If it were me and I needed to distribute non-free software for practical reasons, I’d make sure I explained the situation and discussed possible alternatives, along with the drawbacks of both using and not using a particular piece of non-free software. Some users may choose to forego the ‘convenience’ of proprietary software when the time is right for them.

    Schools on the other hand…don’t get me started on schools. They’ve swallowed the Microsoft/Apple propaganda hook, line, and sinker.

  • Duncan

    If my bank failed to work with freedomware, it would very soon be my former bank, with both an email to corporate HQ and an earfull to the folks at the local branch telling them exactly why.

    Actually, tho I use firefox now, that’s one reason I have the bank I do; back when I used konqueror, it worked well with it. =:^)

    It’s actually pretty simple here. Nearly all software, freedomware and proprietary alike, requires the user to assume liability for damages when running the software. If the software in question has sources available for me (or someone I trust) to examine so I can fairly see what it does before I agree to take on that liability, I’ll agree to it, and actually, given that a primary feature of freedomware is that the user can change the code, having them assume liability for the code they may have changed in ways not ever envisioned by the original authors only makes sense. But if the author(s) don’t provide sources, it’s self-evident that they don’t respect their users enough to give them a fair basis on which to assume such liability, and given that, I don’t trust them enough to agree to take such liability, so I don’t agree to assume that liability and as a consequence they withhold permission for me to run the software, so I don’t.

    As a matter of fact I just had to take a (Samsung) printer back earlier this week, when I discovered that the pre-purchase research I’d done on drivers hadn’t been thorough enough, and while there were Linux drivers, they were proprietary and I couldn’t agree to run them, so back went the printer!

    Meanwhile, otherwise freedomware with sources available, that happens to be covered by software patents held valid in some regions, is an entirely different matter. That particularly the big US-based distros don’t want to deal with it is understandable, but there’s others that risk it. Additionally, it’s worth noting that this issue doesn’t affect source-based distros to the same degree, since at least in the US sources are normally not considered violating, only built binaries. So source-based distros only have to worry about it in their live-media installer or where they otherwise provide pre-built binaries. Beyond that, it’s the responsibility of the user, who may after all have their own patent licence coverage or may live where it’s not needed, and who can choose to build with or without the covered features enabled.

    But that’s my personal position. And given that it took me several years to actually switch to freedomware here, and that had someone forced it on me prematurely, I’d have either reverted or at least wouldn’t have ended up valuing software freedom as I do, I respect that others must come to their own decisions in their own time, as well.

    I guess I look at it much like a defector who has loved ones still in the old country and hopes they eventually choose to leave as well, might look at that situation. I’ll never go back unless the freedom situation there changes, and I naturally want others there to experience the freedoms I now hold so valuable for themselves, but I’m out of it now, and while I can and do try to provide encouragement and help for others getting out too, to a large extent, it’s gotta be their decision, made in their own time. And if there’s some that find themselves traveling back and forth, or who simply care more about other things and don’t care about the freedom I’ve found so valuable, well, it’s their life, not mine.

  • Colonel Panik

    Where is the freedom in “It don’t work.” ?

    FOSS is a great dream, something to work for but as a Linux
    Guy for the past 10+ years I find it to be the anchor on the
    ass of progress.

    Two days ago my son could not complete the forms for his new
    job, hint: Adobe Acrobat. I have two very not FOSS LMDE
    machines and he had an Android appliance, no joy. Well the
    library is only 7 miles away, eh?

    The eldest and her husband are both working on PhDs and you
    do not even want to think about bringing FOSS to the grad

    My hat is off to Ken and his ReGlue tribe, they work miracles
    everyday and having a working computer is way more important
    to these kids than having a “FREE” computer.

  • Mike

    @Colonel Panik said “FOSS is a great dream, something to work for but as a Linux Guy for the past 10+ years I find it to be the anchor on the ass of progress.”

    Progress has nothing to do with it. FOSS doesn’t lag proprietary software. Rather, it’s easy for companies with deep pockets to push proprietary ‘standards’ that render FOSS difficult to use on a practical basis. Since most people don’t care about software freedom, it makes FOSS ‘inconvenient’ because it doesn’t work with all the cool stuff being pushed by those same companies.

    FOSS is something to strive for in the same way that other freedoms are – it will likely never be the ‘easy’ option. There will always be some shiny new drug pushed by some corporation that shackles it’s users with proprietary code and stomps all over their freedom and privacy. For the most part, the ignorant masses will eat it up regardless. It’s just the way things are…people don’t understand software, and they especially don’t understand software freedom, nor do they care. The only thing that matters is whether or not their new device is glossier and has higher numbers on the box than the last one did.