Dell: one step forward, two steps back

Ubuntu famously has Bug #1, reported by Mark Shuttleworth before the first Ubuntu release: “Microsoft has a majority market share”. But its really more than just that, as the current description of the bug mentions:

Non-free software is holding back innovation in the IT industry, restricting access to IT to a small part of the world’s population and limiting the ability of software developers to reach their full potential, globally. This bug is widely evident in the PC industry.

Its not just Microsoft (though they are one of the worst offenders), its also Apple, Adobe, etc. Today I commented on this bug:

http://www.ubuntu.com/

“Ubuntu CDs contain only free software applications; we encourage you to use free and open source software, improve it and pass it on.”

http://www.markshuttleworth.com/archives/84

“I hear you when you say “users want proprietary codecs”. That’s why we make sure these items ARE available, at the user’s option, as packages on the network repositories. That allows users who need that functionality, or who choose that functionality over free alternatives, to exercise that choice freely. We don’t make that choice for them, though of course there is huge demand from real users for that. And we will stay firm in that regard. Ubuntu does not, and will never, include proprietary applications.

http://direct2dell.com/one2one/archive/2007/12/18/38935.aspx

one step forward…

“Today, we’re adding Ubuntu 7.10 (a.k.a Gutsy Gibbon) to the Dell Consumer Linux line-up for customers in the United States. It will also be available on the Inspiron 530 in England, France, and Germany later this week.”

two steps back…

Pre-installation of [Adobe's] Flash for a better web experience”

“we now include built-in DVD movie playback with all Ubuntu 7.10 systems” using LinDVD

While its one thing if Dell wants to preload flashplugin-nonfree (which still is clearly NOT in the ‘spirit of Ubuntu‘), I am much more concerned by the fact that they’re using LinDVD to play a restricted format, as its not available in Ubuntu’s repositories (contrast with a case like MP3 support via gstreamer0.10-fluendo-mp3). The LinDVD page says “LinDVD, InterVideo’s Linux software DVD player, is currently available only to manufacturers for evaluation and integration.” Is this only legally available to Dell owners then?

It looks like Dell wants to create a DellOS distro based on Ubuntu with various of proprietary things in the mix (ala Linspire) to help sell their computers. There’s nothing stopping them from doing that, but is it really fair for Dell to be calling this “Ubuntu” though?

Update: Mark Shuttleworth responds:

The question of OEM’s adding proprietary bits to Ubuntu has been the subject of long discussions here. In the end we concluded that customers always have the option of buying the systems and installing Ubuntu themselves, without those. Most folks who are primarily freedom-focused and self-powered will do that, and many of them then add Flash in any event. But folks who are buying a complete solution have said they want the DVD playback, and want it pre-installed for them.

Ubuntu itself is unaffected by this decision. Folks who want Linux, with those capabilities installed, can get it.

and… so do I:

“we concluded that customers always have the option of buying the systems and installing Ubuntu themselves, without those.”

I can buy a computer from Dell with Windows on it and overwrite the HD with Ubuntu, but that’s also sub-optimal.

Adobe’s Flash plugin is gratis; AFAIK, LinDVD is not however. As it is bundled with Dell’s Ubuntu systems, have we not just started trading the ‘Microsoft tax’ for a different ‘proprietary software tax’? Is that really any better in the long-run?

Philosophically, how does this ‘Dellbuntu’ really differ from Linspire?

“Starting with the best that open source has to offer Linspire adds [...] proprietary software [...] and codecs”

Update 2: houstonbofh replied:

Providing a “free” OS if different from delivering a free OS. Yes, Dell is adding there “value add” to Ubuntu. Have you looked at a Dell Windows PC lately? If you want a clean Windows install on a Dell, you reinstall Windows. An entire project (The Dell Decrapiffier) was created just to address this. It is not a surprise that they also want to put a stamp on the Ubuntu desktop, and if we try and stop that, we are stepping on Dell’s freedom. And having them ship a commercial project shows the viability of the Linux market, and this is not a bad thing. While Dell mucking about with the desktop (any desktop) is a ugly thing, it is a sign of a very good thing; the adoption of Linux by the infrastructure that made the wintel standard so powerful.

And so I wrote:

“It is not a surprise that they also want to put a stamp on the Ubuntu desktop, and if we try and stop that, we are stepping on Dell’s freedom.”

If they wanted to rebrand the systems ‘Dellbuntu’ that would be different. This cheapens the name Ubuntu and mocks its core principles. It is also a step backwards; a proprietary Flash plugin and DVD player software are examples of exactly what Bug #1 is about:

“Non-free software is holding back innovation in the IT industry, restricting access to IT to a small part of the world’s population and limiting the ability of software developers to reach their full potential, globally. This bug is widely evident in the PC industry.”

Up until now, despite some annoyance I’ve had about the way Dell was going about handling its Ubuntu systems (including not selling them here in Canada ;), I planned to replace my current system with a Dell when it got older. But if they’re going to pull games like this too, I’m going to reconsider.

I note that Mr. Shuttleworth has blogged about the proprietary DVD playback as a good thing: “the US patent landscape makes that impossible, so for the moment this requires proprietary software”

Why does it have to be preinstalled though? Why can’t users be given the option to download it like Real Player from Canonical’s partner repository? If its not even gratis, that is a very slippery slope Dell is heading down indeed.

But arguments for ‘legal’ encrypted DVD playback aside, what justification is there for the preloaded proprietary Flash plugin?

Also I note in the comments to that post:

“Excellent news! Next step is audio and video codecs – mainly mp3, wmv and others.”

What is there to stop Dell from including all sorts of non-free codecs and STILL calling it Ubuntu? At what point does Ubuntu slide down the slippery slope and the “Ubuntu promise” become a bad joke?

Update 3: I filed a new idea on Ideastorm:

Dell should follow the ‘spirit of Ubuntu’ for its Ubuntu systems!

I was all excited to read that “Today, we’re adding Ubuntu 7.10 (a.k.a Gutsy Gibbon) to the Dell Consumer Linux line-up for customers in the United States. It will also be available on the Inspiron 530 in England, France, and Germany later this week.” but then it was with a bit of horror that I read:

“Pre-installation of [Adobe's] Flash for a better web experience”

and

“we now include built-in DVD movie playback with all Ubuntu 7.10 systems” using LinDVD

So under the guise of ‘customer desire’ Dell is going contrary to the ‘spirit of Ubuntu’ by preinstalling non-libre software. What’s worse, as confirmed by a second posting:

“Note that this is a closed-source, proprietary application, and is not included on the Ubuntu 7.10 OS media. [...] ISO images DO NOT CONTAIN LinDVD, as LinDVD is a non-free application that is included in the cost of a system purchased with our Ubuntu 7.10 factory-installation. We’ll make information available on how this application can be purchased after the holidays.”

Apparently Dell thinks that because they can hide the cost of Windows in a regular Dell system, its OK to hide the cost of a proprietary application in their Ubuntu systems.

NO IT IS NOT!!!

If Dell wants to sell LinDVD as an add-on, that’s fine, but one of the major draws of Ubuntu is specifically the LACK of proprietary software and its FREE cost. Do not force users to pay for non-libre, non-gratis software by attempting to bundle it into the cost of the hardware!

Also, regarding Adobe’s Flash, while most Ubuntu users will likely want it, its again contrary to the ‘spirit of Ubuntu’ to force users to have it by default. Quoting Mark Shuttleworth:

“I hear you when you say “users want proprietary codecs”. That’s why we make sure these items ARE available, at the user’s option, as packages on the network repositories. That allows users who need that functionality, or who choose that functionality over free alternatives, to exercise that choice freely. We don’t make that choice for them, though of course there is huge demand from real users for that. And we will stay firm in that regard. Ubuntu does not, and will never, include proprietary applications.“

Ubuntu 7.10 will automatically offer Adobe’s Flash or the libre Gnash plugin when Firefox encounters a SWF file, so there is NO NEED to bundle it.

So allow me to suggest how Dell can make its Ubuntu systems better:

When a customer orders one, have a software choice like the following, which assumes LinDVD costs $20:

Ubuntu 7.10 [subtract $20]
Ubuntu 7.10 with proprietary codecs (Flash, etc.) [subtract $20]
Ubuntu 7.10 with proprietary codecs (Flash, etc.) and LinDVD player [Included in Price]

Dell could then go all contrary to Ubuntu’s philosophy and include things like MP3 support via the gratis but not fully libre fluendo codec but give users a say in the matter.

Alternately, if Dell is going to insist on bundling all sorts of non-libre and non-gratis software and not give the purchasers a choice about it, please stop calling it Ubuntu!

If you feel that I have a point, please vote to promote the idea! :-)

Update 4

I left a comment on Mark Shuttleworth’s blog post, but its still “awaiting moderation” so we’ll see if it actually posts:

Mr. Shuttleworth, while I understand that you’re happy that Dell’s Ubuntu derivative will appeal to a wider audience than free software advocates, I must direct your attention to http://direct2dell.com/one2one/archive/2007/12/19/38924.aspx

“Several people have been asking about the reinstallation DVD ISO’s mentioned in the post. We have made these available for download on the wiki. These ISO’s duplicate a factory-installed Ubuntu 7.10 image from Dell for those systems listed. They have not been tested on any systems other than those listed, so they may or may not work well on other systems. Note that these ISO images DO NOT CONTAIN LinDVD, as LinDVD is a non-free application that is included in the cost of a system purchased with our Ubuntu 7.10 factory-installation. We’ll make information available on how this application can be purchased after the holidays.”

Are they really saying that LinDVD is going to be bundled into the cost of the hardware? With no way to decline that? When you go through their purchase system on http://www.dell.com/ubuntu that appears to be the case. It is the same sneaky technique used to mask the cost of Windows on a PC. I can’t imagine that you approve of that; please use your influence with Dell to make LinDVD an OPTIONAL purchase; I don’t want to be *forced* to buy proprietary software to get an Ubuntu PC from Dell!

Also, he made another post to Bug #1:

> What is there to stop Dell from including all sorts of non-free codecs
> and STILL calling it Ubuntu? At what point does Ubuntu slide down the
> slippery slope and the “Ubuntu promise” become a bad joke?

The Ubuntu promise has always been that *we* will publish a system which
has only free software applications, but that we would work with
proprietary vendors to make sure their stuff works on Ubuntu because
Ubuntu users have every right to choose a proprietary application if
they want. We took the difficult step of deciding to include proprietary
drivers precisely because we WANT people to experience free software,
even if their hardware provider has not yet figured out how to do Linux
properly. In this case Dell is the user, and Dell is also acting on
behalf of their customers.

The underlying idea is that Ubuntu should express the best of free
software, but that it should also be useful to EVERYONE and a platform
on top of which people can build even if they don’t have entirely the
same set of values. We are not trying to beat freedom into the skulls of
those who do not want it, we are showing them what is possible and
leading them towards that freedom one step at a time.
The set of people who will build their own kernel with all the firmware
removed is very, very small, and they can help themselves. We, at
ubuntu.com, aim to reach a wider audience, which is people who are
passionate about free software and want a trusted, convenient place to
get it. They will make their own decisions about non-free applications
they might add, just as you describe. Dell is aiming for a slightly
wider audience, of people who are willing to try something more advanced
or new, but don’t want to stumble on something they consider a basic
element, such as DVD playback, just because there are US patents on that
technology.
Update 5:I’m rather discouraged and a bit disappointed at this point. Not really by Mark, since his heart is in the right place, but more by Dell who refuses to sell an all-free OS (just as they have consistently refused to sell no-OS computers). At this point I won’t be buying a Dell machine, let alone recommend anyone else buy one. Oh well, there’s always system76 and ZaReason (or I could build my own machine… with some help anyway; I’m not really a hardware person).
Update 6:I just noticed that iTWire has an article referencing this post:
If Linux on the desktop is to have any hope of making a serious impact on Microsoft’s market share, then it needs to have companies like Dell and Asus pushing it out to the mass consumer markets of the world. Those consumers are simply not concerned with the niceties, political correctness and purity of the version of Linux on their machines. All they want is a computer that works out of the box. And as far as I can tell, that is what Dell is trying to deliver.

The comments on the post indicate to me that I’m very much in the minority position, that “there’s no problem with what Dell is doing here”, “We should praise Dell for making an effort to promote Linux, not knock them.”, “I applaud Dell for listening to customers” and “It’s attitudes like those expressed by Limulus that continue to try and drive a stake in the heart of Linux.”

:(

Update 7:

Many more comments have been made on the iTWite article and I’m glad to head that I’m not alone in my concerns! :)


The fuss is good
written by TheQuickBrownFox, December 21, 2007
Note: All instances of the word “free” in the following are as in “freedom”.

I think it’s great that people are making a fuss. The point of the free software movement is not to get everyone using Linux no matter what. It is to get people to use free software for their own good. There may be cases where the only solution is proprietary (DVD playback, unfortunately) but the act of bundling proprietary software with a system whose main advantage is to be free should be met with some resistance every time. It’s starting down a slippery slope to bundle DVD software. The next step would be mp3 playback software. But there is a perfectly good ogg audio codec that we should be promoting for the same reasons as Linux. We shouldn’t restrict freedom to the world of computing but aim to spread it to other industries too. This is already beginning to happen thanks to the temptation to use Linux in various hardware including media players and the “freedom infecting” nature of the GPL license.

I’m not saying that Dell should not have bundled the DVD player but I am glad that some people made a fuss. These “zealots” will at least stick to the principles that are the main reason we have such high quality free software to enjoy today.

And frankly, exactly the same arguments apply to the proprietary flash player.

The giants’ buddies…
written by buffalosoldier, December 21, 2007

The giants’ buddies are not for a moment trying to do the Linux communities any favours here. The capitalists are only in this for one reason…you guessed it, the personal rewards, (stuff the rest of us).
And most who buy a Dell computer, probably don’t ever consider any more about it than whether or not it works, let alone what OS is on it.
I am a relatively new Linux user and I am sad to see that there are so many maybe being sucked in by this.
Free is free, and not free is not free…what part of that is hard to understand?
You all have a nice day :)

Poor, strawman, he must be hurting bad by now
written by AlanM077, December 22, 2007

I keep reading terms like “zealots”, “religious”, and “purist” in relation to FOSS advocates, and when those types of terms pop up, chances are we have a strawman somewhere in the vicinity.

Dell can do what it wants, as long as it abides by the law and follows the GPL. But thank goodness for folks who hop up and down about proprietary software. Without them we would continue to be at the mercy of software corporations like microsoft. They may not be 100% correct, but they balance out the masses who would happily sell their soul in a EULA as long as they could view youtube videos and play world of warcraft.

What I’m saying is that there comes a time to compromise, but we need to remember it’s a compromise. There needs to remain a bit of conflict, a certain amount of pressure towards free software. The FOSS “purists” maybe should not get their way all the time, but they should by no means be silent. The whole “shut up and let us have our toys!” mentality people are expressing here is what got us in the situation we are currently in.

I feel better now ^_^

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One Response to “Dell: one step forward, two steps back”

  1. Mitch 74 Says:

    Hello,

    I perfectly understand your position. I think in fact, that it’s not your position that is the trouble, but the way you express it…
    You almost started a boycott on Dell on a technicality.
    To be fair, personally I’d wipe out LinDVD if it ever reached my computer; but in that case, maybe Dell is in trouble upstream. Let me explain.
    Quite often, you get an OEM version of a software DVD player when you buy a DVD drive; actually, the DVD manufacturer buys a license for the CSS descrambler, and ships said ‘right’ with its drive – and a locked-down application, through which comes the license. Until now, said application was either a Windows app or Safari.
    As such, Dell probably buys the descrambler’s license bundled with the DVD drive; licensed softwares are, on Linux, pretty much limited to LinDVD.
    In short, you’re putting the heat on Dell for something that may not actually be their fault.

    So, you may turn your tune into ‘Dell should allow users to buy systems with DVD drives that come without CSS descrambler license’ – but then, I’m not sure the DMCA actually allows them to do so!

    Nice, really – real basket of crabs they’ve opened here.

    Mitch

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