Freedom, freedom...

Freedom, freedom...

A few years ago, when you wanted to use a GNU/Linux distribution for your desktop computer, you still needed to concede a part of your freedom to open some PDF files, run most Java programs, or all Flash animations.

Not anymore.

Several steps closer to a fully free system


Right now, the most used version of Java (and therefore, the most targeted by free implementations) is 1.4.2, even though 1.5 has been out for two years now.

With gcc 4, a JVM was added to the existing Java support. Strong with existing free implementations (such as kaffe), this support rapidly reached 75% of compatibility between gcj and Sun's JVM.

Right now it stands at 99.75%.

Thanks to what? Maybe the strong reliance of 2 upon Java... As a result, a very compatible JVM is now available.


Flash support has always been sporadic under GNU/Linux systems. While it's gotten better with the release of Flash 7 and Flash 9 being developed concurrently for win32, MacOS and GNU/Linux...

Gnash is, right now, the only way for someone using a 64-bit browser to enjoy Flash animations.

And it actually works quite well - its use of OpenGL can even make it a bit more fluid under X.


Adobe and Apple created a very nice format: PostScript, and encapsulated it nicely: Portable Document Format. They went as far as opening the specs on the file format, and provided a readily downloadable viewer for a large variety of platforms.

Ghostscript can now render pretty much every PDF 1.4 file out there.

A full desktop?

I've been complaining about the lack of free 3D support under X; it was time I said something nice about what most people working with computers use everyday...



aquila's picture
Submitted by aquila on

(It's probably a bad idea to submit my first comment just in between some competitions but I have to react...)

I wonder: is this really necessary? Is a free desktop really that useful? Why should one be worried about free programs? I see some reasons:

  • Economical ones: you are depending on one vendor, as in the Windows era. True, of course, but IMHO Flash, Java and PDF are open standards so you can change at any time. If users have a program that works better they don't care wether it's free or not.
  • Ethical reasons: free software on free software systems (Linux, *BSD, ...). For companies this does not matter, they have to be legally okay anyway. For individuals this might be more important, but why? The regular user does not care. If you're really fanatic (perhaps this is a little bit exaggerated) you can live with the free alternatives I guess or you will avoid Flash for example.
  • Legal reasons: most of the times those programs are licensed just enough for you to use them. Installing them in an easy way is of course difficult, but I reckon this stems from the fact that there are very few linux users.

These are just my 2 cents, most probably there are some gaps in the reasoning here. But that's what happens when you feel like reacting at 9am...


Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

When I bought my new shining AMD64 machine, it was only able to run good in Linux. But I couldn't run many of the codecs and other closed software on it to listen/see many of my files i got from friends. In Linux/i386 you can, but not in any other architecture, like Linux/IBM360.
The same problem when I wanted to make my new Linksys NSLU2 into a media station. The codecs for many formats was in i386 code. And that was a problem, becouse it doesn't run i386 code, it's an ARM architecture. It's capable to do lots of fun stuff, like distributing different media and such. But emulating a i386 with speed to convert media formats is not one of those.
So, yes, it has more use to be able to run Linux desktop, not just for desktops...

Just my €0.02

Terry Hancock's picture

Actually, if you don't ever “need� the software, it doesn't matter if it's free.

The problem with non-free software is that it can essentially be taken away from you at any time. This might not be technically true, but it can be rendered useless, can't be used on later platforms, and/or can't be distributed (depends on which non-free terms are in question).

This is basically what we call the “future proofing� argument: software freedom removes the doubts associated with obsolescence, planned or otherwise.

So if it's just a toy, and you don't care if it goes away, then, no, it doesn't matter. Big companies, accustomed to a constant maintenance cash burn rate, and for whom all upgrades come down to cash, whether it's spent on outside licenses or inside training, may not care about the difference. For individuals and smaller businesses, where it is cash-flow, and not profit-or-loss that makes and breaks them, however, the difference is critical.

Being able to get what you need by working a little harder instead of blowing capital, is a very valuable option to have.

So, how critical are these technologies? If a flash viewer is only needed to watch cartoons on the web, then maybe it doesn't matter to you. But if you're an entertainment company maintaining a 20 year archive of cartoons, then you're being an idiot if you pick a proprietary storage format without a free viewer, because you're going to be paying through the nose for that choice for about 17-19 of those years.

In my experience, however, applications tend to drift towards greater and greater criticality, so just about any common technology that only exists in proprietary form is a threat to my future freedom.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

As for my opionion:

Java - I don't use it so I don't even have JRE installed. I have no apps in Java, also I'm pretty happy that my browser will not load ~20MB plugin runtime to run something like... like what exactly? I don't know (and use) any website/service that relies on Java right now. Java is obsolete for me.

Flash - this is a big one for me. I just need it. I couldn't go without it. There are loads of things in Flash that I just need to see. Youtube for example. :) Too bad Flash on Linux is now pretty awkard (old plugin version using old ABI).

PDFs - I use Acrobat Reader. Ghostscript is nice but all it can do is just render a file and maybe add few links to it. It is more to PDFs than that (like JavaScript in them, forms and stuff). PDF is a really nice and *open* format. You shouldn't be bashing Adobe for releasing their Reader software in recent version for Linux. You *should* be instead asking FOSS community where is the support for all features that PDFs offer in Free Software readers. It just not here, and this is in fact some cool and usefull stuff.

As for other things? How about media codecs (MP3, Windows Media, Quick Time, Real etc.) - these are big issues.

PS. Och and OOo 2.x is not based on Java, some features do. But do you use them anyway? You can in most cases use OOo without Java and it will be much snappier.

Mitch Meyran's picture

Java: you don't use it, and you can live without it, good for you; personally, I have a few Java-based apps I sometimes need, and since Java apps can run without being recompiled under many environments (from win32 to GNU/Linux/AMD64), I'd rather have them rather than having to wait for a native port.

Flash: well, the Gnash plugin has started implementing the newer ABI and newer plugin specs in firefox and Konqueror... No YouTube support yet, but they're working on it. What will be very nice about it will be its ability to make use of hardware acceleration for antialiasing - a big CPU consumer since it's done in software in the Adobe plugin.

PDFs: Ghostscript can do forms as far as I know, now. Moreover, I had a problem with Reader: it would silently crash on my system upon printing, without giving an error message. I had to reformat my system, nothing else would make it work again. It started failing overnight - so I now stick to Ghostscript. Note: GhostScript is first and foremost a Postscript (layout language) interpreter; Javascript (script/interaction language) support is actually independant from it, and would in fact have to be embedded in the viewer, not in Ghostscript itself; so later version of, say, gv, or Kghostview, are to blame there (and I think at least some of them integrate JS support; Kghostview would be a safe bet, since it can call upon KHTML's JS support). I was talking about error correction, font replacement and printer compatibility in my post over anything else.

OOo 2.0 makes use of Java for its database frontend and used it to display full-screen presentations (I think it doesn't require Java for that any more). For version 2.0.0, lack of the Sun JVM meant quite a lot of crippling (no fullscreen, no spellcheck, no merged documents); it got much better in 2.0.2 (added gcj support and reduced reliance upon Java) and 2.0.3 (more of the same).
A computer is like air conditioning: it becomes useless when you open windows.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I personally don't need the constitutional protection of a free press or free speech. I don't publish, I don't give public speeches - so why should I need free speech?

I like to give this as an answer to people who say that they don't need open source / free software, because they are not programmers and would never dream of looking at the source code or modifying it. They say that they are simply users of off-the-shelf products.

I am both a consumer/user of publications (newpapers, TV, radio) as well as software. I believe it is very important for a democratic society that those people who need the protection of free press/speech (journalists, publishers, etc.) have it, even if I personally don't need it. In the same way I think it is important that a system of free/open source software exists for those who need/want it, even if I personally don't need it.

My personal needs (and even those of the majority) don't necessarily determine what is good for society. Only a small fraction of the population personally needs protected free speech or free/open source software. However, the general existence of such freedoms is a pillar of a free and democratic society.

Terry Hancock's picture

I do hear where you're coming from and it's a popular refrain, but it's really a bit of a false analogy. Printing presses cost money, so the fact that publishing software costs money -- even per copy -- isn't really a restriction to freedom in that sense: you are still free to pay a license to use the software, just as you are free to purchase a printing press. I know the FSF has waged a long war against this interpretation, but it doesn't make it false: the primary effect of free licenses is to make per-copy license fees untenable.

Nowhere does it say that you have to be given a printing press for free.

Likewise, it doesn't immediately follow that access to development of software must be available for free.

And if you don't think that's the point ("Free as in speech, not as in beer!") then ask yourself this: if a company gave you full access to the source code for every package, and the right to redistribute the results of your work as long as 1) you paid them a per-copy fee for each copy of the source code, and 2) you paid them a royalty on each copy of your modified version of the software, and 3) you had to use a compiler which also cost money per-copy -- would you still call that "free software"? You'd have all of your "four freedoms" -- except that you'd have to pay for them all.

That's another reason why I think the "free as in speech, not as in beer" slogan is disingenuous: "free as in speech" may be the ideal, but without the "free as in beer" part, it's still a non-starter.

On the other hand, it's easy to see the benefit of having a free tool for publication, as it enables much more speech for a broader community of speakers and furthers the ideal of free speech.

That's why I prefer to speak of free software in terms of "ideals" rather than some rigid system of "rules". The freedom promoted is a social ideal, not a fundamental right -- zealous propaganda aside. Still, I'm willing to work pretty hard for such a social ideal.

But I think people who claim to be "fighting" for the "right" of free software are really just grandstanding. There is no such fundamental right, any more than there is a fundamental right to copyright protection itself. They're just social choices that promote one or more ideals of society. Which ones do you like better? Which serve the public good better?

They both provide incentives and penalties for consumers and producers both.
Which one is a better bargain for society? Fortunately, the miracle of the copyleft free licensing scheme is that it prevents you from having to choose once and for all for all society: free licenses create protected zones within an existing copyright regime where free-licensed open source software innovation can happen.

This is on a completely different level from the freedom of speech, which is fundamental. Indeed, the freedom of speech includes the right to write and publish software, whether through the per-copy fee-based system of traditional copyright or through the freely shared systems of copyleft or non-copyleft distribution.

On the other point, if this was in any way directed at my earlier post, I should probably have said "it is needed" rather than "you need it" -- the emphasis was on the fact that the importance of the freedom of the software is correlated to how much it's needed. If it's just a toy that has no real extensive value, then it doesn't really matter.

But how many software packages are promoted as "just a toy", and how many stay that way, even if they start out there? Software freedom is an important value in just about any package. And that's adequate reason to go 100% free in my opinion, even when that's not always easy (and sometimes costs more money in hardware).

It's also part of the reason why we need copyright term limits and the public domain: it's one thing for fluffy television entertainment to be restricted by per-copy fees, but it's a whole different matter for the classic works of literature that form the fabric of our society to be so limited. The recent (that is, over the last 30 years) extensions to copyright have unnecessarily retarded our society by locking up culture in a way that makes the real and natural evolution of that culture difficult, and locks out all but an oligarchy of "producers" from the right to extend and develop our culture.

So ideals are important, but they shouldn't be confused with natural rights.

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Mitch Meyran's picture


Have you ever fixed a computer with a hammer, glue and a soldering iron? Why not? It's fun!