The Price of Free Software…?

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As part of my recent pursuit of GUI-heavy Linux operating systems I decided to take a closer look at Fedora. According to its website, it is an extensive, feature-rich distribution with software and hardware developers in mind. In principle it is a community-driven project, though thanks to its patronage by Red Hat it became tremendously successful.

I found Fedora interesting, because of its strict approach to licensed software. Considering its link to an entirely commercial entity such as Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), it’s surprising, to say the least. Most Linux distributions offer licensed programs as part of their non-free (Debian), restricted (Ubuntu), etc. repositories. Accessing those repositories is not mandatory, but usually offered to improve user experience. Most programs we know are licensed or even proprietary (‘non-free’ by definition), hence to me it was only natural to have access to those programs. Fedora makes it a tad more difficult, because its non-free repositories (RPM Fusion) are not available out-of-the-box due to them being against Fedora’s principal ethics. Therefore, one has to manually (either through the terminal or using a GUI) add them to the package manager. Though troublesome, I consider this to be an honest solution.

At this point it should be made clear that free software does not equate open-source software. Free software has been very well defined by the Free Software Foundation (FSF), headed by Richard M. Stallman. Thence, software is truly free only when it complies with the Four Freedoms. Otherwise, it is merely open-source software. Now, ‘free’ in ‘free software’ means ‘freedom’ (French libre, liberte) not ‘lack of price’. Therefore, a free software developer may require a donation or fee for his work, though once this has been paid, the piece of software is completely free to use, to modify, to redistribute, etc.

To the titular question though – what is the price of free software? Obviously, the direct cost of using a specific piece of free software is typically zero. However, once one decides to use free software exclusively, the moral cost is enormous. It requires the user to severely limit his options of work and leisure. A more detailed picture can be drawn using an example.

I have an old Intel-based MacBook Pro 2008 with Fedora 22 64-bit on it. I cannot use the AirPort Extreme Broadcom 4322 wireless chip, because only the proprietary broadcom-sta driver supports this specific chip revision (a common problem, in fact). Therefore, I am forced to buy a USB dongle with kernel support and permanently keep it in one of my 2 USB ports. Next, of the available browsers I can only use Midori, which is still very buggy and incomplete, or Firefox’s libre equivalent IceCat. Therefore, I’m left with Firefox/IceCat and a teaspoon of plug-ins considered to be libre. Should I decide to commit to graphics design and 3D rendering, I would probably need proper drivers for my integrated Nvidia card (320M or 9400M) to profit the most from my out-dated hardware. Not possible, because the default nouveau driver for Nvidia graphics cards is frankly speaking still light years behind its proprietary counterpart. Summing up, I’m left with a decent, but grossly limited computer that feels more like a ‘demo version’ of itself.

In my opinion the concept of free software is very noble and definitely facilitates good developer practices. Alas, for now it is completely Utopian and will never gain full momentum as long as we, flawed human beings continue to cling to our earthly principles, such as property and money.

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