Abusing the word "free" in software: what's really free in the Google market and in Ubuntu's market?

Short URL: http://fsmsh.com/3651


I am becoming more and more convinced that the real thread to free software (and I am talking here about software released under a free license, not software that you can download and use for free) is contempt. Proprietary software is a competitor, but not a real threat. Proprietary software cannot really kill free software: no matter how many law suits you start, how many patents you file, how many pre-installed versions of Windows you have, common sense will always win. Contempt, however, the the real danger.

If I use my Android phone, and then my Ubuntu machine, both based on GNU/Linux or Linux, and I realise that I simply cannot browse free applications and just see those ones, then I realise that something is wrong.

Very wrong.

The android issue

If you type "fractal" in your Android phone, you will get a list of application. One of them, the second in the list, is Fractoid: a fantastic GPL application for your android phone.

Pick the free app from this list (if you're a psychic)Pick the free app from this list (if you're a psychic)

You can change formula, use the fractal as background, and so on. The first one in the list, Fractal Explorer, is a nice enough application for which you will never ever see the source code. What's worse, I have no way to filter out the non-free applications.

The Ubuntu issue (!)

if you then go to your trusted Ubuntu computer, and run the Ubuntu Software Center, things aren't much better (!). I am not especially bothered by the fact that they try and sell you applications: I believe that people should have the freedom to install proprietary software if they wish to. Not a good idea, but still. What I see, however, is worse:

  1. I don't trust that "free". I know that VLC is free, for example; but what about "Stellarium"? I have never heard of it. I checked it: yes, it is indeed "open source" (OK, fine). What about the others?

  2. I have no way of paying for a GPL piece of software. I use VLC a lot, every day. I would love to donate $3 to the developers, for the privilege of using it. I don't think I am alone

Can you spot the free app here?Can you spot the free app here?
Is free really free here?Is free really free here?

Clicking on the section "Games" in the Software Center will simply list a bunch of programs -- and yes, some of them are anything but free.

Maybe I have access to proprietary software because I enabled the "Multiverse" repository. But, that's the same repository I need to enable in order to have access to much-needed multimedia codecs (not necessarily proprietary stuff, but definitely surrounded by legal issues).

Where is the really free stuff?

I can understand (but not forgive) Google for not providing a meaningful filter for their Android market. But I am totally baffled by Canonical.

Are we really approaching a world where "free" could mean "under a free license", or "proprietary and crippled in terms of features", or "proprietary but ad-supported"? Really?

Main image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/botheredbybees/2081101143/sizes/l/in/photostream/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/free-stock/4792018878/



Ryan Cartwright's picture

What's annoying to me is that Android has never had a way to filter apps by licence. It's something I (and others) mentioned in 2009 and the fact that nothing has changed says (to me) a lot about Google's attitude to free software.

There are some lists of free android apps around but filtering those out of the myriad of zero-cost lists is a task in itself. F-Droid is useful but may or may not be complete depending upon whether the developers submit their apps there as well. For those interested these (in no particular order) are the lists of free[dom] android apps I know of but all of this could be moot if Google just added filtering by licence to the market!

As for Ubuntu..? Well I still think this sums the situation up perfectly: the Bizarre Cathedral 69

Author information

Tony Mobily's picture


Tony is the founder and the Editor In Chief of Free Software Magazine