Freeness Zealots Hurt Linux Multimedia

I’m in the midst of a computer build-fest. I built a server to provide internal services to our home network, a media center PC for the living room and a new desktop for my parents. There are lots of computer parts flying around my house. It’s a geek paradise.

For all of these computers I was extra lazy and took the Ubuntu path. I’ve pretty much cut back on Linux distributions to the point where there are only three I use regularly: Gentoo, Ubuntu and Knoppix. I use Gentoo on any computer important enough for me to put in the requisite effort. I use Ubuntu whenever it is up to the task because it is as good as Debian without the effort. And of course, I use Knoppix variants for when I need a LiveCD with lots of tools.

Ubuntu has been the choice on all the new computers. It is excellent as usual. The issues with sound I previously griped about don’t even come up, because Ubuntu automatically sets up esound awesomely. I haven’t yet tested to see if it will correctly make surround sound work. I honestly doubt it will. But the fact that hal, dbus and udev work perfectly out of the box is more than enough for me. Of course there is one fatal flaw of Ubuntu.

Like its parent Debian, Ubuntu is big on freeness. Every package in the default repositories is fully free. Without jumping through a few hoops you can’t install any non-free software. Some of these hoops are legal hoops. For example, installing and distributing Sun Java as part of Ubuntu would be illegal. However, it is a small vocal minority of Linux users that actually demand that every single piece of software they use is free as in speech. In my experience most users just want everything to work and don’t care if they have to use something that isn’t free speech. As long as it is free beer they will take what works best. There are people who use Linux for reasons besides freeness such as security, stability and flexibility. If you really believe most Linux users care, why are the Nvidia drivers so popular? On the Gentoo forums you’ll see many a thread about how to use them or how to fix problems with them. And you’ll see maybe one zealot per thread yelling about how it isn’t free. Well guess what? Only zealots care. It would be nice if there was a truly free alternative. In some cases there is. The forcedeth drivers are arguably better than the nforce-net. But if given a choice between a fully free solution that is sub-par and a free beer solution that works better, just about every non-zealot is going to pick the non-free solution.

This is the flaw with Ubuntu. Its freeness makes it incompetent for multimedia. It comes setup with a piece of software for every multimedia task you want. Playing audio, ripping audio, playing video, the whole shebang. But it only works on free file formats. With a setup like that new users are going to think Linux is useless multimedia-wise, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

The truth is that if you setup Linux with a full set of non-free software you will be able to rip, mix, burn, play and transfer every media format you want. And it does it all without DRM and without any annoyances. It also does it with fewer pieces of software. In other OSes you often need multiple pieces of software to play different file types. In Linux you can arguably use just one piece of software to handle all files. You also aren’t limited in how you use the files. QuickTime might not let you full screen the trailer, but mplayer will. In this department Linux blows Windows and Apple out of the water. Apple only wins in the content creation department. Windows wins in neither, even if you go through the trouble to setup mplayer on Windows.

The problem is that there are only two ways I know to get Linux to this perfect configuration. The first is to use Gentoo. If you set all the appropriate USE flags and emerge mplayer you’ve completed the playing component. Just merge k3b, XMMS and grip and you’re 90% of the way home. But it requires a lot of learning and effort to install Gentoo. Debian can do it too, but you have to add lots of repositories and do a lot of package hunting. Debian also is not easy for newbies to install. Ubuntu has the same problem as Debian with the repository searching and package hunting. Thankfully, the Ubuntu Wiki provides a lot of help in this department, but it’s not near enough.

Here’s what I suggest. Make a non-free, multimedia fork of Ubuntu. It will come installed just like Ubuntu, a fully capable and easy desktop OS. But this fork will include a full set of multimedia packages and codecs by default. Or it will include as many as it can without being legally questionable. To avoid some legal traps they can add extra user interaction at the end of the installation. I noticed you have an Nvidia card, would you like to install the Nvidia driver now? Would you like to install Sun Java? You get the idea. From there on it will guide the user to setting those things up in a way that requires the minimal effort from the user while remaining legal.

If this distro really existed and worked I believe it would trump Ubuntu itself in popularity. That assumes the distro would be maintained and that there would be sufficient public awareness. Once we’ve got this down I think there will be some real Linux migration by normal folk. Normal folk who are fed up with not being free with their multimedia. I guess those zealots will have to learn to deal with the fact that the only way to be truly free with multimedia is to use some non-free software.

What would be extra cool is if there was a way to make a deal with software companies to allow us to distribute their software. If it isn’t possible, then perhaps we could create an illegal distribution and host it in some country that doesn’t care. I always wonder, if it is legal for mplayer to host all the codecs on their site for free download why would it be illegal to host a distribution including all those codecs on the same site? A lot of what people do with their computers now is multimedia. If Linux can cast away a few zealots it can show that it is the best multimedia playing and managing operating system. Once it catches up to Apple in the content creation department it will be unstoppable.

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