Every Linux distributor must find its own peace when it comes to the issue
of proprietary software. Some distributors will avoid anything non-free to
the point of tearing firmware out of the kernel. Others, like Fedora or
Debian, will not
include any non-free code. Distributors like Ubuntu are rather more
willing to facilitate the use of non-free software, but even they are, perhaps,
not 100% comfortable with it. And distributions like Xandros positively
embrace proprietary code.
OpenSUSE (like SuSE Linux before it) has traditionally taken a position
which is relatively friendly
toward proprietary software. It was only in 2006 that Novell announced its intention to stop
shipping non-GPL kernel modules, but it never made any such promises with
regard to user space. So a typical openSUSE installation disk includes a
number of proprietary goodies, including the Adobe Flash player, a number
of fonts, ARCAD, the Acrobat PDF reader, the Opera web browser, RealPlayer,
The presence of all this proprietary code is unwelcome to some users, of
course, but it has another interesting effect: it requires that openSUSE be
distributed with an end-user license
agreement which has some very un-free-software-like terms. Among other
things, it reads:
Novell reserves all rights not expressly granted to You. You may
not: (1) reverse engineer, decompile, or disassemble the Software
except and only to the extent it is expressly permitted by
applicable law or the license terms accompanying a component of the
Software; or (2) transfer the Software or Your license rights under
this Agreement, in whole or in part.
In other words, redistribution of the openSUSE DVD is not permitted.
Members of the openSUSE mirror network are, technically, in violation of
the EULA, though nobody appears to be in a hurry to call them on that.
But the EULA raises eyebrows and makes some users uncomfortable; many
people got into free software to avoid dealing with agreements like that.
The need for the EULA, rather than problems with proprietary software in
general, is causing developers at Novell to reconsider which packages
should go onto an openSUSE DVD. To that end, Novell product manager
Michael Löffler has proposed a new
scheme whereby the DVD would only contain redistributable software
(including proprietary software, such as firmware, which allows
redistribution). The openSUSE project would set up a network-based
repository from which other proprietary applications could be installed;
the installer would then install a couple of packages (the Adobe Flash
player and Fluendo's MP3 codec) by default.
The end result for most users would be the same: an openSUSE installation
with both free and proprietary software. At least, that would be the case
for users with a decent network connection. But those users would also
gain a DVD with a much less restrictive EULA allowing the DVD to be
redistributed at will. (The current plan is to still have an agreement for
trademark control and warranty disclaimer reasons, even though other
software distributors have managed to eliminate EULAs for those purposes).
At this point, it would also be easy to add an
option to simply skip the configuration of the non-free repository for
users who want a "clean" installation.
Most responses to this proposal have been positive. The happiness is not
universal, though; one user complained:
I don't think Novell, openSUSE and us should be influenced by "bad
press" of doubt quality and change what is a key point of openSUSE:
offering also proprietary software ready to go on the DVD. Moving
these packages to an online repository makes no difference from
downloading and installing them by hand.
It is true that one-stop shopping has long been a feature of the SUSE
distribution. And a
recent survey [PDF] suggests that a significant portion of the openSUSE
user base makes use of at least a few of the proprietary tools included
there. If the presence of this code is truly a "key point" of openSUSE,
then taking it out could risk upsetting users at a time when, by some
accounts, the visibility of this distribution is already dropping.
This risk would be mitigated by a couple of factors, though. One is that
the need to download those packages over the net is not much of a stopping
point for most users. After all, people installing Linux from a CD or DVD
have usually resigned themselves to a massive download of package updates
after the first boot anyway. Tossing a few more packages into that
download - assuming they weren't set to be updated by then anyway - is not
going to change the experience in any significant way.
But the other relevant point is that the need for much of this proprietary
code is decreasing. Java used to be a big part of the openSUSE
proprietary software load, but Java is now free. Your editor cannot
remember when he last encountered a PDF file which could not be managed by
at least one free viewer - though, evidently, such files do still
exist. Perhaps the biggest remaining problem is Flash; progress is being
made there, but Flash is most certainly not a solved problem. Beyond that,
though, there are few situations indeed where a proprietary application is
really needed for ordinary tasks.
The openSUSE distribution is not distancing itself from proprietary
software at this time; it is just reorganizing its management of that
software to address one of the problems it brings. But it is still hard to
avoid the temptation to read between lines and look forward to a day when
openSUSE, too, distributes only free software - not as a result of any sort
of push for purity, but just because its users no longer have any need for
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