The Best of Ken Starks
We were fortunate enough to have a donated space in the expo hall at Texas Linux Fest this year. Carolyn Hulsey, who is one of our directors, manned the Reglue booth for us on Friday. She jokingly asked if I wanted her to be our “booth babe” this year. She was, indeed, all of that.
What was truly humbling was the number of people who recognized us without introduction. When someone approached, I stood and extended my hand in greeting. More often than I would have thought, the person shook my hand and told me, “I know who you are.”
It was one of these people who later pursued a three day email discussion with me on free-as-in-beer software. And yeah…we all know the benefits. But what of the negatives?
His take on Linux distributions?
“Anyone paying for a Linux distribution is putting their money down the drain. What they should be doing is putting that money into the hands of a free distro developer so (s)he can make their distribution better.”
My long-time friend and mentor, Carla Schroder, recently had a piece published at Linux.com. The article asked a good question concerning Linux distros and she based her article on the different answers to the question…
These distros highlighted had a major impact on The HeliOS Project and later, on Reglue: Mepis and Libranet.
When I first started The HeliOS Project I was using Librenet on my personal computer. Libranet had a per-user licensing agreement in order to make the effort pay and a single user license was $69.00 If I remember correctly. Jon Danzig and I worked out a multiple licensing agreement that we could both live with. The fact is, Jon almost gave those licenses away because he believed in what we were doing. Jon’s untimely death in 2005 eventually resulted in the Libranet venture striking their tents and moving on.
I consider Libranet as the first extremely easy Linux distro for the masses. However, we were left with no other choice but to change our flagship distro.
Mepis Linux worked amazingly well for us. We used Mepis on all of our outgoing computers until 2010. We put Mepis Linux on over 200 computers during Lynn Bender’s Linux Against Poverty event in 2010.
Many of those systems are still in use today. Three and a half months ago, we were contacted because one of our Reglue systems was no longer working. A quick glance at the boot screen told the whole story.
It was Mepis 8 still running that computer, with KDE 3.5 working in all it’s splendor. The problem was an aging Nvidia card/driver and some serious dirt and dust within the machine. We replaced the computer with a decent dual core and our current Mint KDE LTS. Everyone is again happy. At least for another 4-5 years.
That Mepis system ran from 2010 until the late winter of 2014 without one major problem.
The three day email discussion I mentioned above was ignited by our difference of opinion pertaining to the “free as in beer” culture and mindset that encompasses most of the Linuxsphere.
His thoughts on the matter? “Charging for a Linux distro or even software being developed for Linux is obscene.” Linux and free open source software should never have a price tag. Also, it should never have proprietary drivers and apps within.
We agreed to disagree. My job is to help disadvantaged kids get a functional and useful computer into their home. I can’t very well set a new computer up in a kid’s home and then give him a long list of things he cannot do with it.
“I’m sorry there kiddo. You can’t watch a lot of videos or use your school’s website because they depend on Flash. I’m also sorry that you can’t play on miniclip.com or use some of your apps. Java doesn’t work on your computer. But hey…ain’t using Linux great anyway? Make sure to tell all your friends how great Linux is.”
Google’s act of stripping Java support from Chrome severely cripples that browser. What they intend to replace it with still remains to be seen. Is Chrome following Apple’s lead in refusing to include Flash? At first blush, it would certainly seem so.
At this time, it’s unclear to me how Chrome merits any consideration as Reglue’s daily driver on the information highway.
And I’m sure someone wants to mention Iced Tea and other open source attempts to produce replacements for Flash and Java. Yeah, they work…sometimes. My experience is that they fail at the exact time and place I need them to work.
As much as I agree in principle with the FOSS doctrine, that philosophy cannot stand the full weight of day-to-day pragmatism without the roof falling in. The inclusion of Flash and Java into the Linuxphere is a necessary evil for many of us.
We’ve enjoyed success in placing Reglue machines, but some think we’ve compromised the free open source software principles to do so. Really…? Compromised principles? I’m not here to start a religious war nor am I here to place my allegiance in any particular camp. What I am here for is to express my opinion on what works best for the majority of most everyone.
Most everyone that uses a computer anyway.
Sometimes, in the Linux/free software world, things we thought would be here forever can go away quickly, leaving everyone in a state of confusion and surprise. The relatively recent demise of SolusOS and Fuduntu come immediately to mind.
As an aside, I wonder how my argumentative friend would feel if he donated money to these distros?
“What they should be doing is putting that money into the hands of a free distro developer so (s)he can make their distribution better.”
Both were great developers, but did any donations to those projects stop them from being canceled? Even though many people donated to either one, in the end it didn’t make a whit of difference. They are gone and seemingly never to return.
But wait, let’s talk about that little Google Chrome maneuver that caught many of us by surprise last May. In no way could it be described as anywhere near a pleasant surprise….
When I updated to the 35.xxx release of Chrome, I figured it was business as usual. I rarely review the release notes unless I need to see if a certain feature is now supported. Maybe I should be checking for features that have had their guts ripped out.
While it was publicly announced, many of us didn’t get the memo. Google dropped all Flash support in Chrome. It’s their plan to make Chrome faster and more secure.
One of the reasons I left Firefox for Chrome was for its built-in support for Java/Flash. Why these two are intertwined I have no clue. Regardless, those websites that worked previously with Chrome no longer did…it simply said that the Java plugin was missing and it offered a link to download and install it.
I remember thinking to myself, “Oh crap…this can’t be good.”
And it wasn’t. A short search for some answers came quickly:
Java plug-in missing after upgrade to 35.0.1916.114 (Linux)Java plug-in missing after upgrade to 35.0.1916.114 (Linux)
Two years ago, Reglue made Chrome the default browser in our default distro simply because Java (and many Flash) woes in Linux were dispatched quickly by using it. Ever-increasing difficulty with Flash and Java in Firefox made the switch seem sensible.
Now, that just ain’t so.
Google will do what Google will do but a steamroller change like this is going too far, even for Google. We’ve found our way back to Firefox and it feels like putting on an an old pair of comfortable jeans. It just feels right.
There is a passionate discussion among devepers concerning this “problem.” The plugin wasn’t omitted…it was blocked. Here, you can read for yourself the anger among those who develop for Chrome. Potentially millions of users woke up to find that their Chrome browser no longer supports Java. If it doesn’t support Java, then for many of us, Chrome is practically useless.
My point is that we shouldn’t need to use multiple browsers for different tasks. But that comes full circle to my point: In this instance and many others in the free software world, free can suck.
While I am sure there are a number of cases where we could cite the same sort of thing happening in commercial products, I don’t think any stockholder or board of directors would support a main feature being gutted from their product. Not without replacing it with something better. It appears that Google doesn’t have any such compunction.
As user edtoml points out in the above link:
“Getting rid of a ‘bad’ API can be a good thing. Not converting critical plugins is bad verging on evil.”
Of course, that depends. If you are trying to forcibly guide Internet applications into certain directions, then this is the course Google should be taking. Microsoft made a living out of it. Don’t get me wrong, Flash and Java suck and they need to die by fire, but killing them off before alternatives exist is nasty business.
And of course, that brings us again to something we, as Google users, have come to understand.
Google is rapidly becoming our Internet overlords, if they aren’t already. Gmail and Chrome are not Google products…we are the products. We are the marketable items. Gmail and Chrome are simply the useful playgrounds given to us in order for them to collect our data. Why does the choice between a red pill and a blue pill come to mind?
So as always, the devil is in the details. Am I ready to give up my Gmail account and Chrome browser?
Gmail no, Chrome, yes. I may even revisit Opera. But I am dialed in by a factor of 10, looking for alternatives that can give me the same features without compromising ease of use. Let there be no doubt: If there ever should be such a product to come down the pipe that replaces a Google offering, I will certainly use it.
And I will most certainly pay for it if necessary.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on The Blog of Helios on July 13, 2014 under the title “When Free Can Suck.”
Ken Starks is the founder of the Helios Project and Reglue, which for 20 years provided refurbished older computers running Linux to disadvantaged school kids, as well as providing digital help for senior citizens, in the Austin, Texas area. He was a columnist for FOSS Force from 2013-2016, and remains part of our family. Follow him on Twitter: @Reglue