Re: A plea for some peace
[disclaimer: I'm not a developer. I've not posted anything here
before. Laugh me off the list if you like]
On Fri, 9 Jun 2000, Hamish Moffatt wrote:
> Nobody is forced to work on non-free. Some people choose to.
> Others want to stop them from doing so because they consider
> their ideals to be more important than the work and freedom of others.
> By all means demote non-free to a lesser status, though.
> We will lose users if non-free is removed. Be sure of that.
> A developer split may be a good idea. Those who want to honour
> the current contract with our users can continue to do so; those
> who want to change it on a whim can do that too.
Ok, speaking as a user, I have a few questions and musings I'd be
interested in getting some feedback on. All questions below are intended
as nothing *but* questions, with no intention to cause any more flamage...
Firstly... I'm definitely a supporter of free software. And, in a way, I'd
support this GR had I the chance. But I'm seriously worried about some of
the issues it raises, and I've been trying to work out what the actual
effect of all this will be, should the GR be passed as-is.
Assuming the non-free section was removed, and all guarantees about
supporting it were gone, the effect on debian as a whole would be greater
than effect keeping it has - IMPO.
Without support for non-free packages, even with the best will in the
world what is non-free now would be much harder to keep in sync with the
debian distribution. In real world systems, where I would guess most
people have at least some non-free software - and I *suggest* that the
non-free software people use is often the things they use more frequently,
simply because such things are often large projects, and thus take longer
to develop free alternatives for - and on those systems, debian as a whole
would become less stable. I'm not talking about whether non-free software
is a part of debian or not - I'm quite clear that it isn't - but in the
Real World, debian is a platform, and people run non-debian software on
that platform. As yet, we (the free software community) cannot provide all
the software that the average user would use - and there are some
show-stopper holes. Obviously, those who are more hard-line free software
people can refuse to use anything that would be classed non-free, but that
choice isn't available to us all - in my case, I've sold my employers on
debian solely because of its package management. However, they won't let
me use any sshd other than the non-free one, and if this GR was to pass, I
would eventually have to stop using debian at work, because I believe my
trust in non-free additions working as well as free software because it's
packaged by the debian project (being careful not to say it's part of the
distro) would be lost. Once I can't add important packages by apt-get, or
once the ones added by it are less trustworthy, I lose my bargaining point
with the management, and we switch to something with less adherence to
principles. I suspect I'm not the only one in this position - the debian
package management is a *real* killer when it comes to impressing people.
Real people in the world use debian GNU/Linux as their operating system,
and I personally believe it's the best choice for many tasks, but if the
above were to come to pass, the system out in the field would become less
maintainable (the biggest problem for me), less stable, and for the
average user, less useful. It would still be better than most other
distributions, because of the core free software and the features in it,
but for the average user the pieces we would be removing would be things
they would notice.
I'm not interested in the plausability of the above statement - it is only
one of several possible outcomes. I happen to feel it's the most likely,
but that may just be me.
What I'm interested in is... do the assembled developers believe that the
above, were it to be the result, is a price they wish to pay?
I, very personally, think it's not. This may be enlightened self-interest,
to enable me to keep using debian at work.
Secondly... I can't help but wonder if a lot of the confusion could be
removed, and a lot of the *intent* (as I understand it - if I'm wrong, I
apologise for misinterpreting) of the GR could be kept *without* removing
As I read it, the GR is an attempt to make debian take a moral stand
against non-free software - to a point further than it currently holds.
To address some points...
Since package maintainers choose themselves which packages they support,
it does not "cost" debian to support non-free packages with
*maintainers*. The size of the non-free archive seems to be fairly static,
and debian proper grows quickly enough, that the space saved would be
negligable. I'd guess that closed source software would cause, on average,
more trouble than free software in the BTS, but given the limited size of
the archive, this is again negligable compared to the vastness of debian
I would *definitely* agree with the removal (or at least holding) of
non-free packages from a release where they cause the release to
break... although I feel were that implemented, some method of
prioritising packages would be needed - mozilla is *not* ready for prime
time yet, and we can't be sure how long it will be until it *is*, so
something like netscape is more important than, say xsnow (although some
of you who have used both may agree to differ with me there), and the more
"important" non-free stuff should run on debian - at least until there's a
*complete* replacement, at which point there's no need to discriminate
As to the confusion, whereby users assume that non-free software is a part
of debian proper, there is a possible solution.
Inform the user.
Dselect could, I suspect, be reasonably trivially modified to display a
list of the non-free packages people choose, along with appropriate help
something along the lines of:
"You have chosen packages which are not a part of debian. Debian only
contains free software, which is defined by the DFSG (url). The packages
you have chosen are not free software by the guidelines we use, and may be
licensed in such a way that it does not integrate into debian as well as
free software. Where there are free software alternatives for the packages
you have selected, they will be displayed in the next screen"
And then go on to a standard listing as if there were conflicts - with
some easy method of telling which packages are free, and which are not.
This method, I think, would be better for the free software community -
not only does it give users the *freedom* to choose non-free software in
the same way as free software, it gives us the chance to actually *tell*
people that there are alternatives to their non-free choices. People who
wouldn't normally notice the difference between non-free and free software
would be left in no doubt as to which they were using, and importantly
they would always be told if there was a free alternative. Has anyone here
ever carried on using non-free software because they didn't know there was
an alternative, and it was something that you needed? I know I have.
The above method could easily be adapted to apt-get, as well - simply give
a shortened spiel about a package being non-free, and present a list of
alternatives - with a Y/N continue prompt.
Any tool that is used to *select* debian packages could be modified to
display such a warning - obviously with a command line switch and/or
compile time option to not show alternatives, for those of us who don't
use free software, or for those who make non-free distributions based on
Anyway, that's my 0.02$CURRENCY. I've deliberately tried not to ruffle
amyone's feathers with this, but if I have, I can only add my apologies.
Charles Cooke, Network Engineer
Say it with flowers, send a triffid