Ubuntu’s Non-Free Parabox

Our venerable friend Jono Bacon has posted an interesting blog post concerning the outcome of the bug to enable the nonfree installation of Flash on Ubuntu. It would have manifested itself in the installer, by having the nonfree checkbox switch on by default.

  1. The problem: We can not have what we want in the default install.
  2. The current solution: Provide a set of proxy packages which can install the functionality after the installation, moving the liability and problems from Canonical to the user.
  3. The problem with the current solution: It requires manual user interaction.
  4. Problem with checkbox solution: It’s against Ubuntu policy and the Technical Board Voted it down.

I’m a big proponent of “nonfree offsetting” (few people are, but I’m sticking to my guns); If Canonical wants to ship nonfree Flash instead of almost fully working GNU Gnash, then they should be willing to offset their balance with adequate investment into the free software alternative; i.e. they should be putting money into Gnash.

It’s funny because I was talking to Rob Savoye, winner of this year’s free software award, at LibrePlanet 2011. Overcoming the technical barriers to finishing Flash 10 support in Gnash, now that there is good documentation from Adobe, is so close. But the only businesses investing in Gnash are embedded systems; systems who need a Flash player to work on ARM and other architectures. Red Hat isn’t one of them, neither is Canonical, and I tire of not hearing from these companies on why they can’t invest more into solving these issues with an economic nudge.

Even if you don’t want to give the money to Rob, then send in your own engineers to get the job done!

Back to Jono: his position is that this issue is down to design. In his world view, installing nonfree Flash is required, it’s the only option and the one that we offer when you install Ubuntu; let’s assume that’s right for a moment. He’s asking designers to mull over how to achieve the right kind of communication to users to encourage them to click on the checkbox: This in itself is a policy paradox.

Anything we do to encourage users to install nonfree, nonessential components, is simply against the Ubuntu policy of shipping free software and encouraging its use. It’s hard to claim that this is a balance of free vs. nonfree with a straight face when your stated aim is to encourage users to install nonfree components.

In the comments to the blog post there are some very good responses from Alan Bell and ethana2, but there are also some comments from users who I think are more pro-compromise then they are pro-free-software. An example from Cleggton (I don’t mean to pick on you personally Cleggton, you’re just the easiest to quote):

If we take philosophy out of the argument for a second, then it seems clear that the users who care whether they are non-free, patent questionable etc are the ones that are most able and informed to uncheck a checkbox. And the ones that aren’t aware of the difference are our new users, who need YouTube just to work out of the box, lets make it work and then lets educate them later.

I hear this kind of appeasement argument an awful lot. Users don’t care (so we’re told) and free software is too hard to achieve. Not everyone of our users is going to care, especially when we so rarely tell them about free and open source software and it’s practical ramifications to them personally. But even that doesn’t make it irrelevant. Our users expect us to care about the things that will benefit them. In fact they expect us to care for them with careful policies. Even if polices get in the way of jam today; they’re there to make sure there’s jam tomorrow and users trust us to make those calls on their behalf.

Besides, you know what your mother always said about getting your own way without putting any work in: It trivialises the issues involved and waylays expectations and the reality of our situation. Then it’s much easier to ignore real solutions like spending the time creating free software and instead continue to make excuses on why we should keep the toxic workarounds like the nonfree Flash player in our ecosystem.

What are your thoughts?

25 thoughts on “Ubuntu’s Non-Free Parabox

  1. My thoughts are that throughout this entire post you ignored the very real fact that today, right now, despite your convictions non-free flash is the best way to ensure a working system at install time. The same goes for other non-free components.

    “If Canonical wants to ship nonfree Flash instead of almost fully working GNU Gnash, then they should be willing to offset their transgressions with adequate investment into the free software alternative; i.e. they should be putting money into Gnash.”

    Transgressions? Excuse me? Canonical has absolutely NO responsibility to pay for the inadequacies of Gnash. Their first responsibility is to the USER and any religious beliefs (yes, I said religious) must fit within that responsibility. To me that means if a free alternative is equal or better, use it .. absolutely, without question. If not, utilize other methods to ensure a working system (as defined by user-x, not me or you) post-install.

    Really, all this talk about ecosystems chaps my ass. It’s all verbal masturbation if the customer (the user) is left unsatisfied.

  2. Of course not every user is going to care about the ideology behind one or the other choice, but I think that the pro-nonfree argument rests on an assumption not in evidence: that shipping the nonfree flash with ubuntu is going to increase the rate of uptake over and above its current growth rates. It’s hardly difficult for new users to open up firefox and google “why isnt ubuntu playing youtube” or something of the sort, and then opening up the appropriate applications and installing the software. So why are so many voices so insistent about this issue? it’s easy to say that this or that application is the LAST ROADBLOCK to widespread adoption, but there always seems to be one more. and one more. and one more.

    and, well, there’s nothing stopping them from starting their own distribution that does all these things they want by default but is otherwise practically identical to ubuntu, and seeing if it becomes a marketshare juggernaut. i’m skeptical.

  3. I think if the GNU Gnash is really ready then it should be installed by default without asking people to install. Sure it must be an option to uninstall it and install Adobe Flash if you like (from Ubuntu Software Center). You know just like an OpenJava is installed instead of sun-java (Oracle).

    But I think check-box is not only about Flash it is about much more of software like mp3, graphic drivers etc. This kind of software will never be legal to install and free software will probably never be available. So if you have a choice to have a very bad graphics vs. perfect graphics and ask end-user what would he/she like to have it would be perfect graphics. If you tell them it is non-free (like freedom) they will probably not care about it. Why? Because this is really not a choice. People are making choices between similar products. If there is huge difference between two product this is really not a choice, but little bit a stupidity to not use superior product.

    I think you are correct about flash, but this problem is really much more then just a flash.

  4. In a world where Apple stores have dummy power outlets just to make all the walls look symmetrical, ie. one where Apple is eating everyone’s lunch by having insane attention to detail of user experience; the idea that Ubuntu should ship a 4th rate Flash knock off is laughable. Canonical is completely doing the right thing by giving Adobe Flash to its users and I would hope any reasonable open source advocate would see that someone using a 95% FLOSS stack is better than them staying with Windows because they heard Linux is complicated and doesn’t support Youtube. This is made all the more glaringly obvious to me by the fact that Flash is on its way out anyway. 5 years from now every major site will work flawlessly with HTML5 and we will wonder why we ever needed that junky Flash. So why stagnate the broader adoption of FLOSS in the mainstream for the sake of a few years of free as in beer plugin, which all but the most zealous hardcore of FLOSS users install anyway.

    If Canonical wants to do the right thing by it’s community then the solution is not to support the development or adoption of a ropey 4th rate Flash knockoff. It’s to promote the use of HTML5 as a long term alternative in the wider web.

  5. I’m not really sure its appropriate to point to Canonical’s surplus economic power. Canonical isn’t itself self-sustaining yet so I’m not sure there’s economic power to spare from those quarters. Now maybe the donate feature planned for Ubuntu’s software center can provide a way for ubuntu users to direct their combined economic power to support gnucash without waiting for any corporate entity (profitable or otherwise) to do it on their behalf.


  6. hi,
    i fully agree with your point of view. As i’m aware of LSO risk using flash, my system is working without it: Firefox dont need it to work (true for other web browsers too). Flash & java(script) are opening the gate for all the trackers, spywares, … to rob your private data and trace your activity on the web.
    So with Firefox, i’ve uninstalled all the java/flash/shockwave module, and have instaled the plugin Flashvideoreplacer. Of course it is needed to erase all the cookies and cleaning the firefox folder to remove *java*.so and dont forgrt to remove .macromedia folder too.
    I never had issue with this config viewing online video and my browsing is much more secure.

  7. My thoughts are simple: Why should Canonical or Red Hat invest in a technology which proprietary and controlled by on instance only: Adobe. Flash seems to be so broken that even Adobe is not able to provide proper support for linux. I don’t see why Canonical and others should support that.
    Keep in mind: Adobe may change the behaviour of flash in one release to another. Gnash, Lightspark and so on will have a hard time following.
    The future is HTML5. Until then, im fine with a non-free flash and perfectly fine with the solution in the ubuntu installer.

  8. I agree with you.

    I’ve seen the logs of the vote to “install ubuntu-restricted-* by default” and I’m surprised at how black-and-white everybody involved took this issue. Why are we talking about installing ubuntu-restricted-*?

    Ubuntu has a great installer and at one point, there is a large time-void where files copy. At the moment, this is partially used to setup the first user and that makes sense.

    I don’t understand why there can’t be some skippable screens that manage everything non-free at the same time. It’s a live environment, Jockey will work. Why not add a few screens to install the restricted drivers with space to explain their pros and cons. The same with the Sun Java JRE, Adobe Flash Player, et al.

    There is a real opportunity to have your cake and eat it here. You can educate people about freedom with real world examples but also satisfy their carnal need for closed source software. Give people the choice between Flash and Gnash, Nouveau vs Nvidia, etc… And let them make the decision, straight from the installer while files copy over.

    This is so much better than dumping people on the desktop without Flash and them having to figure out what they need to do to get it. They’ll either use Google and follow the first set of instructions they find (to install Adobe Flash Player) or they’ll write Ubuntu off as an incapable time waster.

  9. BTW I also agree that companies who feel they need better open source software should get involved. Much more effective than just complaining about it.

  10. Calling Gnash almost fully working is plainly and willffully misrepresenting it’s current state as well as it’s potential historically to provide a solution.

    Regardless even if Gnash could 100% replace flash for all flash functionality (which to be clear can’t ) this would depend on patented codecs which Ubuntu cannot ship leaving a 0% working solution out of the box in practice.. well flash ads might work which is a big victory for freedom I guess.

    Sadly for YouTube HTML5 currently has no way to provide things like DRM protected streams and true fullscreen mode which YouTube desperately needs to continue their rental business model and to provide the same experienece as Flash allows them (The YouTube teams a great blog post up regarding all the problems HTML5 present them with).

    Add to this Flash’s notorious performance and stability poblems, I think we are screwed regardless of what we do. We include Adobe’s flash and we destabilize the platform as well as open it to a notorious security risk. We exclude it and we have no way to make Flash content work for users out of the box.

    We are fucked and adovcating the FSF’s self-admitted pipe dream as a solution is naively ignoring the problems we are facing.

  11. Gnash works on youtube just fine in my experience. It doesnt work on most other pages i tried it though. Youtube is mostly for fun, while other places using flash might relate to actual work.
    That being said gnash should be at least be an option for users.
    This all is very tricky to solve correctly in terms of design and implemention but the boards desicion is towards the right direction.
    It probably would need a seperate dialogue as suggested at Jono’s post, but most imporantly it should explain some stuff to the users.
    Which probably means a bunch of text, more than now and checkboxes. This will add some beaurecracy but at least it will be implemented right. IIRC Ubuntu doesnt have a license agreement dialogue anyway, so it might have this.

  12. @DavidNielsen – If you can, please link to some good sources. And I think you’re confusing Flash video support with flash vm support. If Gnash is using the video codecs built into the distro then you’re back down to patents, which is a liability and legal issue, not a foss issue.

    Nice use of naive, you make it sound like freedom is only the aspiration of the witless. Of course this might be true, if Free Software wasn’t running most of the worlds software infrastructure. This problem isn’t large, it’s not some giant, never-ending scheme to consume work, it is finishable. It just needs attention.

  13. Controversy one way and controversy another way; at least this way brought the least controversy…

  14. I think people need to break this down and take each decision separately.

    Someone said above that mp3 will never be free software. Surely that’s not true, since patents expire. It would be good to transition into that royalty-free mp3 future e.g. I hear decode will be patent free before encode and currently there are free decoders available to install. It might make sense to start installing them now (I’ve heard everything from 2012 – 2017 as expiry dates, it would be good to get an official investigation into that by Ubuntu or similar notable free software org and a long term plan in place) .

    But you will say: “There’s the better quality Vorbis, available freely, and newly reinvigorated by inclusion in WebM”, which is correct, but by supporting the nearly expired mp3 we may be able to slightly reduce the uptake of still encumbered AAC (and/or WMA).

    I’d also suggest asking Google to automatically opt-in any Linux user without Flash to the HTML5 WebM demo on Youtube to catch the “newbies”. Not everything works yet, but it’s better than nothing and support will only grow, both in Youtube and elsewhere (e.g. Wikipedia).

    Does the average person really need the Sun/Oracle Java rather than OpenJDK? Do we really need Microsoft fonts now that we have metrically compatible alternatives and font rendering that doesn’t depend on hinting? I don’t think so.

    Flash is a security and privacy risk so it makes sense to only install on user prompting, but it should be easy at that point and updates from that point on should be automatic to ensure ongoing protection from security flaws. Removal and/or selective disabling of Flash should also be a basic part of the operating system much as it is in Android.

  15. How about something like this in place of the current text for the non-free codecs checkbox:

    “While Ubuntu promotes the philosophy of open-source “free” applications, there may be some “non-free” applications/codecs that you will need to perform certain tasks. You can install these now by clicking the checkbox, or later if needed.”

    Obviously it would need to be shortened (maybe), but you get the gist.

    Have a great day:)

  16. I’m not going to comment about the freedom/license of the software that is installed by default which is certaiy a old discussion which has very good points from both sides. I’m, on the other hand, interested in clarifying a very essential point of your post that I believe needs clarification.

    Canonical cannot contribute easily any of their engs to work on gnash. I don’t know if this request you do is done because you write the post before doing some minimun research or you simply like to spread some controversy. The reason I say this is because most people interested in this theme knows that in order to contribute to the project must have never installed flash on their machine. Finding such a developer is a nearly impossible task, and no matter how community centered ubuntu is, you can’t simply ask for anything you want.

    We could argue that money could be given to the gnash project, but that Is asking canonical to make economical decisions that may go against its business.

  17. I need to add to my previous comment, that this would allow Canonical to remove codecs as the “free” versions get better. In the case of flash, when Gnash is improved enough to substitute, then simply remove flash from the installation. No changes need to be made to the text at all.

    And they can put flash back in the installer if Gnash, or any other open-source versions, fall behind again.

    Have a great day:)

  18. I agree with the guys complaining about Flash support in Linux, and the only one responsible of that is Adobe.

    Signed: a frustrated Linux 64bits user.

  19. @Mandel – Actually you only need to have never agreed to the Abode license to do reverse engineering. Since the FlashVM work is all documented by Adobe now, that is no longer an issue. Although I fully appreciate you raising the issue here.

  20. I do believe that Mark Shuttleworth already has donated money to support Gnash: http://www.openmedianow.org/?q=node/39.

    I myself believe that it is unlikely that Gnash will get to a level that it may adequately support the average user; a shift to open standards and html5 seems a much better alternative in my opinion. In the mean time one may have to be pragmatic; as a system without flash is broken for most users, to default to exclude it would be to default to a broken setup and issues are likely to ensue as users attempt to install it (if they visit Adobe’s site they have to know the difference between .deb, .tar.gz and .rpm and the version they download will not be automatically updated, placing them at risk from security issues). Whilst entirely free software would be preferable, if users are to make sacrifices in its name, this should be a concious choice (i.e. RMS might rather not have internet access than use a non-free driver but this cannot be assumed of the average user).

  21. Gnash needs marketing. And its development needs to accelerate. Both are good ways to increase the rate of donations. See how LibreOffice is doing.

  22. @ “nnonix”

    It seems to me that either didn’ read the article properly or just didn’t understand the content.

    “Really, all this talk about ecosystems chaps my ass.”

    One can tell. And it leads you to do the exact thing you accuse others of:

    “It’s all verbal masturbation”

    I hope you got relieved.

  23. So Canonical did already donate to Gnash. Issue solved, everyone can go home now, less bashing!

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