The latest distribution to be endorsed by the Free Software Foundation as a 100% Free Software distribution committed primarily to software freedom is gNewSense. It is based onUbuntu Dapper and is because of that recognized as the most advanced pure Free Software distro, at least according to the FSF:
Ted Teah, FSF’s free software directory maintainer explained, “With all the kernel firmware and restricted repositories removed, and the reliance on Ubuntu’s proprietary distribution management tool gone, this distribution is the most advanced GNU/Linux distribution that has a commitment to be 100% free.”
Since it derives from Ubuntu Dapper and in it’s version 1.0 has not yet departed greatly from its look, feel and overall user experience, gNewSense will feel quite familiar if you used Dapper before. It only makes sense to determine what exactly differentiates it from Dapper. The installation process is the same, and the only thing different that you may notice on the install livecd is obviously the artwork (GNOME splash and the logo).
Bigger differences can be noticed after the install at it’s boot. There is no boot splash and you can only see the command line output. Some have reported that it on the moment looks as if the kernel panicked after they initiate the boot process. Of course, it did not and the boot works fine, just looks a bit uglier than the Ubuntu you may be used to. This is something that will probably change as the gNewSense artwork team is already being assembled and the new concepts are already being worked on.
And indeed, the artwork could use some polishing. It currently lacks behind the original dapper artwork, not to mention the new Ubuntu Edgy artwork which feels even more professional and polished. While it may be argued that the goal of gNewSense is not to look good, but to provide a fully Free Software OS, making it look and feel good doesn’t appear to contradict this ideal and can only contribute to it.
The desktop is currently using the same theme as Ubuntu Dapper, the human ubuntulooks based GNOME theme along with the new human icons. There is some discussion going on in the mailing list, however, to replace this theme in the next release to something that may be more easily associated with gNewSense rather than Ubuntu. One of the theme engines currently being considered is murrine.
Since gNewSense is stripped of all non-free software including all the restricted modules and other binary blobs in the kernel, some of the hardware support may be missing, such as the wireless networking support provided by the ipw2200 firmware. Relative to the goal of gNewSense this is a feature, not a bug. In fact, any piece of proprietary software being left in is considered to be a bug. If you don’t share the same goal as gNewSense you will probably think differently, but even then we shouldn’t expect gNewSense to be what it is not. It will not include any piece of proprietary software in its default install nor will it anyhow encourage installation of anything non-free because that is exactly the reason why it was founded. It wont restrict you from installing proprietary software on it yourself, though, but they wont be the ones helping you do it.
Following this goal, the next release of gNewSense is likely to include IceWeasel instead of Firefox as it currently does. The reason is exactly the reason behind the existence of IceWeasel. The Firefox as it is has certain features that recommend installing non-free plug-ins and gNewSense is not supposed to be recommending any non-free software.
The overall day to day use of gNewSense, if your hardware happens to work well even without proprietary pieces, and you are not hardcore when it comes to multimedia support, is probably not going to be much different than Dapper. You still install software via apt-get or synaptic and you conveniently have the universe repository already enabled. Of course, this is not the Ubuntu universe, but gNewSense universe without non-free components and dependencies.
OK, but why gNewSense? What’s the point?
Why is it important for this project to exist? The answer should be really simple. By making an operating system stripped of all non-free software they are inducing a greater need and consequently motivation for development of free replacements for non-free software currently necessary for some things to work or to do some tasks. By making this clear separation between what is free and what is non-free, they can clearly see the holes that need to be filled up.
This is where gNewSense differs from Ubuntu. As it already does and is apparently going to do more in the future, Ubuntu fills these holes with proprietary software, making it appear in the eyes of many as if the problem is solved and the hole is patched while this “solution” can only be considered temporary at best. Proprietary software in an otherwise free system is like a stone in your shoe. It’s got to start hurting at some point. When it comes to Free operating systems like GNU/Linux you’re supposed to have full control over the OS. This is why GNU/Linux was founded in the first place. However, proprietary software in this system is not under your control, but under the control of its vendor. Should this vendor decide to cease supporting you what will you do? Should this vendor decide to enforce further restrictions (change the license) what will you do?
It doesn’t even have to be so much of an ideological issue. It is a very practical concern that even every open source pragmatist should understand. If you think that Free Software is a superior way of developing software (e.g. what many call the “open source development model”) I would agree with you. Indeed, you can count on it that free drivers for Nvidia and ATI cards will surpass their own official proprietary drivers in quality. It has happened before and it will happen again. Should Nvidia and ATI beat us to it and release their drivers freely themselves, we can then improve and make these drivers of better quality. ATI and Nvidia should compete in who is going to release their drivers as free before because who is first wins the first mover advantage. The community will jump to the source and improve it almost immediately, raising the reputation of this company’s products.
This is why gNewSense makes sense not only ideologically, but practically as well. It is showing you the holes left when you remove the proprietary “stones” from the system wide open, making it clear what’s missing and what needs to be developed. And that’s pretty much the biggest point and value behind this project, even if it never reaches great popularity.