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Review: Ututo-e, the "only free distribution"

By Bruce Byfield on April 28, 2005 (8:00:00 AM)

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Ututo-e is a Gentoo-based distribution developed in Argentina. Of all the distributions listed on DistroWatch, Ututo-e is the only distribution endorsed by the Free Software Foundation (FSF). Since he first noticed Ututo-e while visiting Argentina last August, Richard Stallman has described it as "the only free GNU/Linux distro I know of" -- an endorsement that promises to boost its user base the way that John F. Kennedy's endorsement of the James Bond books boosted their sales. In addition, the FSF hosts Ututo-e on its FTP site.

That Ututo-e contains only free software is easy to verify. The project maintains a set of links on its news page that list all the packages included in platform-specific versions of the distribution, and also highlights its licences. But how does Ututo-e rate as a distribution? What is it like in everyday use? These are questions that have yet to be answered, at least in English.

Looking at both the Spanish and English versions on several architectures, I found a generally successful adaptation of Gentoo for beginning and intermediate users, supported by a thoughtful selection of software and original scripts for administration. But I also found enough rough spots to suggest that Ututo-e is being pushed into the spotlight unprepared.

Ututo-e began in 2001 as a project for developing a LiveCD. Lead by Diego Saravia, an industrial engineer and chief professor at Universidad Nacional de Salta, Argentina, the project merged in April 2004 with the SOLAR (Software Libre Argentina) distribution, a personal project of Daniel Olivera, a freelance programmer.

Olivera writes that Ututo-e is not aimed at a particular class of user, but designed with four priorities in mind:

  • To use only software that meets the free software definition.
  • To be a single-CD distribution.
  • To be optimized for individual processors. The distribution maintains separate CD images for Intel 486, 586, and 686, as well as Athlon MP and XP and Duron.
  • To be optimized for speed.

Ututo-e has 37 contributors, 10 of whom are developers. The distribution has been downloaded more than 50,000 times, according to Olivera, and Ututo-e is being used by the city councils of Morón and Parana in Argentina, as well as a number of military and police organizations, non-profit groups, and companies. The project is currently working on a low-cost, high-performance cluster system, as well as a new release of the distribution.

FSF endorsement is verbal only
While promoting Ututo-e for its upholding of free software principles, the FSF has not adopted the distribution itself. Talking in mid-April 2005, Richard Stallman explained that he had had Ututo-e installed on one of his machines, but had discovered a number of bugs in the English version. According to Stallman, FSF technicians reported the bugs to Ututo-e and are urging a release in the near future to correct them. Until then, Stallman, much less the rest of the FSF, will not be switching to Ututo-e. "I won't be using this release," Stallman says, "but I will be making [switching to Ututo-e] a high priority." However, he adds that, "I want to be able to tell people that I'm using a release that I am totally comfortable with." The FSF endorsement, in other words, is presently more for potential and philosophy than for engineering accomplishment.

Installation

Ututo-e uses its own text-based installer. Once the installation program starts, you are notified of the default passwords for the root and everyday accounts, as well as a separate one for the administrative tools.

Although a custom installation is available, it offers only slightly more choice than the automatic option. Selecting a custom installation offers a choice of cfdisk or parted for partitioning, and the selection of keyboard language and time zone. No package selection is available -- both install options install the same 1,344 packages. All the same, most users with enough experience to be installing GNU/Linux in the first place might prefer the custom installation. The automatic installation's creation of a swap driver and a root partition with an ext2 filesystem is adequate, but experienced users may want to separate data and system partitions or to use the Reiser filesystem.

Whichever option you choose, installation takes about 55 minutes. Much of this time is due to the high number of packages, while configuring and optimizing the system takes at least 15 minutes of the time, according to the status messages.

Desktop and software selection

Unlike many distributions, Ututo-e does not add a single-user mode setting to the boot manager. Nor does it include by default a terminal icon on the desktop of ordinary users. Clearly, the developers assume most people, including the root user, will be using a graphical desktop most of the time.

For a graphical interface, Ututo-e offers IceWM or GNOME 2.8. Both are largely uncustomized, except for the distribution-specific wallpaper in GNOME, which, in the root account, features the message "YOU ARE ROOT - USTED ES ROOT" printed twice in large red letters, presumably to remind readers to be cautious.

Software is oriented towards GNOME applications, such as AbiWord, Gnumeric, and Evolution. KDE is not available as an option, although enough KDE libraries are included to run KOffice and K3b, the CD/DVD burner. Unusual software choices include Guidedog, a GUI for packet routing and IP masquerading, and Bulldog, a firewall GUI. The kernel is version 2.6.6, and the applications are of similar vintage -- not bleeding edge, but not so old that users are missing much, either.

Despite the time the installation process spent optimizing the system for the processor, performance seemed much the same regardless of whether I used the 486, 686, or Athlon XP-optimized CD images. I found a larger performance gain when I reduced the number of desktops from four to one.

Administrative tools and package installation

In the absence of the KDE Control Center or anything remotely similar in GNOME, Ututo-e uses its own scripts, the Lynx browser, and whichever other Web browser is set as the default to provide a text-based administrative tool. The tools include Webmin-like applications for managing users, and a link to ClamAV for anti-virus scans.

Among the administration tools, a standout is the package installer. An adaptation of the Gentoo Portage system, Ututo-e's package installer resembles a better organized version of Debian's dselect. It gives users a text-based list of available packages from which to select. Although a progress bar would enhance the tool, overall it provided a seamless, painless install.

Security

Ututo-e security standards are mixed. On the positive side, the distribution uses multiple system accounts. That is, in addition to the usual root account, Ututo-e uses a number of specialized user accounts, each with a name that suits its specific purpose -- for example, daemon, cron, and portage. With the use of each system account narrowly defined, crackers cannot break into the system by obtaining a single password. User groups are defined with similar narrowness, so much so that if you create additional everyday accounts, you need to add them to additional groups before they have the same access as the ututo user account created automatically during installation.

On the negative side, Ututo-e tells you the system's three basic account passwords at the start of installation, but makes no effort to remind users to change them as soon as possible. Since these passwords are "enter," "enter," and a blank password, this is a major gap in security.

Other basic lapses in security include the automounting of diskettes, CDs, and DVDs; a graphical log-in for the root account; and no enabling of the firewall during installation. The distribution would also benefit from following some of the suggestions in the Gentoo Security Guide, such as placing directories to which users will write on a separate partition, using grpquota and usrquote settings to define drive mounting in /etc/fstab, and installing cracklib to prevent easily-guessable passwords.

Many of these security weaknesses, of course, have become standard in modern distributions. However, they stand out more in Ututo-e more than usual because of the obvious thought that Ututo-e's developers put into the multiple system accounts. Having taken this advanced precaution, they seem to have overlooked the elementary ones.

Problems

Despite the evident attention given to administration tools and system accounts, Ututo-e has several basic problems. In both the Spanish and the English versions, at least one game isn't properly configured, and the Start Here folder is available on the GNOME desktop, but empty. More seriously, USB support is not enabled, but an icon for xsane labelled Scanning Tool is placed by default on the desktop. Similarly, a standard SiS sound card on my system was detected during installation but not configured. Both the automatic and manual X.Org configuration tools hang the system.

In addition, the English version has problems of its own. The English is often non-idiomatic, with such menus as "Configuring the distribution of its keyboard" and "Menu of handling of partitions." Phrases like these can usually be interpreted without much effort, but the awkwardness lessens the professionalism of the distribution. A far more annoying problem in the English version is the series of keyboard mapping errors you receive when GNOME is starting up. These seem to point to larger problems, because, if any attempt is made to change the mapping, the system hangs and reverts to Spanish on rebooting. Even worse, the English version points by default to a Spanish package repository, and I could find no mention of an English one in the operating system or on the distro's web site.

Conclusion

Ututo-e meets its first two priorities of containing only free software and confining itself to a single CD. However, its attempts to optimize for processor and performance are less successful. Yet even if the distribution met all four of its priorities, that would still not be enough for it to meet the expectations the FSF endorsement places on it. Especially in the English version, there are still too many inconsistencies and problems for Ututo-e to compare in functionality to the leading distributions.

Still, what is most noticeable about Ututo-e is how little it sacrifices to remain true to the ideals of free software. True, it lacks RealPlayer, Adobe Acrobat, or a Java Runtime Environment. However, much of the time, it sacrifices so little that most users will hardly notice the principle in operation. If disappointing in presentation, Ututo-e still acts as a reminder of how far the free software community has come -- and of how small a price users need to pay today to support its principles.

Bruce Byfield is a freelance course designer and instructor and a technical journalist.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for Linux.com.

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Comments

on Review: Ututo-e, the "only free distribution"

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GREAT review!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 28, 2005 07:33 PM
This is the single most interesting distro review (so far) - BRAVO!

As for the distro itself - my impression is that while it deserves all the encouragement and support it can get it still is not quite on par with the "big" ones.

BTW - What does RMS or the FSF use? Debian? And why would Debian not be considered fully free?

Suerte amigos - y muchas gracias!

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Re:GREAT review!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 28, 2005 08:12 PM
From the linked RMS interview:



And then there's Debian which keeps all the non-free software clearly separated, but does distribute it. And those who sell Debian GNU/Linux often add a few non-free programs as a "bonus"... They invite you to think it's a bonus you're getting that your freedom is no longer complete.

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Re:GREAT review!

Posted by: Mikkel Elmholdt on April 29, 2005 04:42 AM
The usual BS. I have the freedom to use or not use whatever is in any distro. You don't get "tainted" just by mere proximity to "non-free" software. The rhetoric of RMS sounds suspiciously like a 16th century inquisitor or a modern-day JW.

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Re:GREAT review!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 29, 2005 05:58 AM
Also from a linked review:

FB: What do you think about proprietary software? Does it have low quality? Is it unsecure? Does it restrict freedom too much? Is it unethical?

RMS: Proprietary software is unethical, because it denies the user the basic freedom to control her own computer and to cooperate. It may also be of low quality or insecure, but that's a secondary issue. I will reject it even if it is the best quality in the world, simply because I value my freedom too much to give it up for that.

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Re:GREAT review!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 29, 2005 08:01 AM
I wonder what RMS would say about spyware or viruses released with a GPL license. It sure may allow you to get the source code, but it will also do its best to prevent you from controling your own computer.

Having access to the source does not necessarily give you more control. Control is deciding whether or not to install/execute software on your computer. And to a great extent deciding to remove/terminate said software.

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Re:GREAT review!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 29, 2005 04:03 PM
Debian gives you freedom for choosing non free software. Being able for choosing propietary software because i prefer it gives me more freedom and encourages free software to improve.

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I don't understand...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 28, 2005 07:55 PM
...what this distribution classifies as more free than Debian? o_O

Debian even classifies documentation as non-free because the license of it (GFDL) narrows the freedom of the user/developer.
I think there is no distri out there which does more to the thinking of free software.

But then the FSF comes and tells the people: "Forget Debian, use Ututo-e".

How can it be?

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Re:I don't understand...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 28, 2005 10:41 PM
RMS takes issue with Debian's maintenance of a non-free section, as well as the distribution of things like firmware. (These issues, as well as the contrasts with RMS, as well as the FSF non-endorsement of Debian, have been discussed rather to death within the project.. the curious should search the list archives.)

For someone like RMS, maintaining non-free is implicitly condoning and encouraging the use of non-free software when necessary; for someone who believes non-free software should not be suffered to exist, I'm sure it is indeed anathema.

[ I agree, btw; there is no distribution more dedicated to real software freedom (without unnecessarily sacrificing quality) than Debian.. RMS's blind spot wrt the GFDL, imo, make me happy that Debian does not mindlessly follow the FSF, and takes the time and effort to deal with such issues itself.. ]

Lesson learned: trust noone's opinions until you've evaluated them yourself, even such luminaries as RMS.

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Re:I don't understand...

Posted by: SarsSmarz on April 29, 2005 01:10 AM
Thanks for the explanation. You should put this on Wikipedia!<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:) (gotta love a technical purist!)

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Classic comment

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 28, 2005 08:18 PM
"Ututo-e is being used by the city councils of Morón"

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Debianistas...REVOLT

Posted by: PenguinBoyDave on April 28, 2005 11:08 PM
That's it! We're going to drop the GNU part from Debian. Instead of Debian / GNU Linux, it's now just plain Debian! There...how do you like that Mr. Stallman?

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Re:Debianistas...REVOLT

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 28, 2005 11:16 PM
from your reaction I would suggest you call your fork Debian/PMS (hey dude - relax a little...)

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Re:Debianistas...REVOLT

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 28, 2005 11:20 PM
what do you expect from a retard who calls RMS a "fascist" and whose megalomania makes him think that he is running Debian?!

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Re:Debianistas...REVOLT

Posted by: Mikkel Elmholdt on April 29, 2005 04:23 AM
Where did you read the word "fascist"?

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Re:Debianistas...REVOLT

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 29, 2005 06:08 AM
here <a href="http://www.newsforge.com/comments.pl?sid=46267&cid=111541" title="newsforge.com">http://www.newsforge.com/comments.pl?sid=46267&ci<nobr>d<wbr></nobr> =111541</a newsforge.com>

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Re:Debianistas...REVOLT

Posted by: Mikkel Elmholdt on April 29, 2005 02:40 PM
OK, accepted. Stallman is of course not a fascist, not a communist. His ideology is closer to that of Anarchism, as defined by the russian revolutionary Michail Bakunin, than it is to any other *ism.

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I've got a better idea...

Posted by: gonzeaux on April 29, 2005 04:17 AM
Take Debian, rebrand it, make your own apt repository that doesn't include non-free and voila, you've got a 100% free software distro that actually WORKS.

Truly, I'll never understand the FS zealots.

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Hypocrites

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 29, 2005 05:39 AM
Some people even have the nerves to attack Stallman using software written by Stallman himself. You should get your keyboard out of your ass and start doing something productive with it (with the keyboard).

The Debian project is the most close to beeing a truly free distribution. But as long it even links to non free software, it's NOT free. Plain as that. The fact that it is the most respected community project and the stablest distribution ever, doesn't count. It's NOT free.

In my opinion, if they'll split the non-free stuff into another project (say opensourcedebian.org or something like that), it will be a huge win for the community. But hey, I haven't contributed a singlest patch to Debian, so my opinion doesn't count.

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Re:Hypocrites

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 29, 2005 06:37 AM
This web page links to non-free stuff. Why are you using it?

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stuff!=software

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 29, 2005 08:39 AM
it is both stupid and ugly on your part to try to make the OP look inconsistant while applying the discussed concepts to non-applicable object.

I completely agree with the OP (-: just in case you had any doubts<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:-)

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Re:Hypocrites

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 29, 2005 05:36 PM
Debian can teach the FSF about freedom. Take the GFDL issue for example. Debian seems to take freedom more seriously, and apply it more consistently, than the FSF.

As for your other point, by your logic, some GNU/Linux users have the nerve to attack Linus Torvalds (e.g. for using BK) while using software written by Linus himself. Obviously, using a piece of software disqualifies you from disagreeing with the guy who made it.<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:-)

I'm curious, what distribution do you use?

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Re:Hypocrites

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 30, 2005 12:52 AM
I don't use any distribution. I am using the GNU system, nicely compiled and packaged by myself. And yes, linux-2.6.11.7.i586.pkg it's one of it's packages.


For some months I am spending nights to get the FreeBSD kernel running and porting the whole system to it. From my perspective as a user it's still the GNU system, so the whole GNU/Linux or GNU/Whatever discusion is pointless for me. I just use GNU. I have a lot of respect for the linux developers and their work. But it is still just one possible kernel of my system, and I am heading towards a kernel that has a more mature development model (FreeBSD).



I have spent 4 years of my life building the system, learning, changing, patching, googling, reading mailing lists, etc. All my work in those years was based on the principles of freedom, made possible by the GPL. So I don't have any respect for anyone that tells me that he knows better what my freedom is.



Of course, not everyone is fortunate to build and run his own system. For those, I can only explain why my life looks better since I work in freedom, as opposed to the dark ages when I used Windows.


Hmm, sorry, that should be 'windows slash dos'.

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Re:Hypocrites

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 30, 2005 01:54 AM
I didn't think that the FreeBSD kernel was "free". It's not a GPL license and requires no redistribution of the source.

Could you please explain exactly how your life looks better now? What can you do today that you could not do before? Please use examples of things that are actually useful, not just answering you can compile your own software (the end result of is nearly the same as installing a binary). How has your life benefited?

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Re:Hypocrites

Posted by: Mikkel Elmholdt on April 30, 2005 06:15 AM
So I don't have any respect for anyone that tells me that he knows better what my freedom is.

Uh, you mean like RMS and the rest of the FSF is constantly doing?

The way I see it, no-one in the not-so-religious F/OSS camp is trying to tell you what software to run. Actually we don't give a s*** what you run as long as it makes your day. OTOH, I frequently run across some new statement or article from the High Priest of the Only Free Software License, where he's solemnly instructs us filthy heathens, that "thou shallt not use unfree software".

For those, I can only explain why my life looks better since I work in freedom, as opposed to the dark ages when I used Windows.

Before I came to Jesus, I lived in sin<nobr> <wbr></nobr>....

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Re:Hypocrites

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 30, 2005 10:16 AM
You've had a windows computer? You should be ashamed of yourself!

As for me, my very first computer ran GNU/Linux.<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:-D

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Re:Hypocrites

Posted by: Mikkel Elmholdt on April 30, 2005 06:23 AM
Some people are attacking Microsoft using software released by Microsoft. So what?

Stallman may be a truly great programmer, but for some of us his political ideas about "freedom" is just plain ridiculous, as are your comments on the free-ness of Debian.

You are free to use or not use whatever part of Debian you choose. No one is forcing you to use anything you don't want to. The choice is yours and yours alone. You don't need Stallman to hold your hand and decide for you whats good for you.

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Ututo is useless...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 29, 2005 06:46 PM
Ututo-e is the worst thing to have happened to the Free software community in Argentina.

The people creating ututo-e are a bunch of lunatics that will let the opportunity to move a whole school or city to GNU/Linux slip, if the city insist that the kids have flash or other non-free software installed.

Besides this, they discouraged potential linux users from trying a real working linux distribution such as Suse or Mandrake. Instead, they recommend their non-working piece of shit and leave the potential user with a bad taste in the mouth.

If they had a working product, I'd be more than happy to recommend them. But they don't.The distribution sucks and the only thing that has brought them any notorierity is Stallman's shallow endorsement. Why is it shallow? Because he doesn't use it himself.

Yet the first thing these guys tell you is that Ututo is the one and only true linux distribution because RMS said so, when the thing doesn't even work.

And to those that may misconstrue my words, I respect RMS and all the work he is done. He is a personal hero of mine. But alieanting lots of people by subscribing something that is closer to Slackware 1994 than a real linux distribution or operating sytem in 2005 is bollocks.

Later.

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Re:Ututo is useless...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 29, 2005 09:19 PM
Stallman's shallow endorsement. Why is it shallow? Because he doesn't use it himself.

I hate to admit it because RMS is also a hero of mine and a deeply respect him, but you have got a really good point here<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:-((

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Re:Ututo is useless...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on June 17, 2005 12:48 AM
I'm told by the author of the distribution that RMS himself is going to use it very soon.

I'll publish the story in our web site, that is www.solar.org.ar (spanish only, I'm sorry).

Looking for help to translate the interview to English, I'll see _you_ there<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:-)

Best,
Gerardo Díaz

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ha ha!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 04, 2005 04:05 PM
" an endorsement that promises to boost its user base the way that John F. Kennedy's endorsement of the James Bond books boosted their sales "

Oh, thanks for a good belly laugh.

Perhaps you should consider that some of us evil capitalists think the current FSF has outlived it's usefulness and it's duties need to be transferred to a new organization ran by a new generation of people.

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Re:ha ha!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 06, 2005 02:37 AM
thanks for the belly laugh you gave me!

Now, maybe some of you evil capitalists should consider that we, at the FSF, do not give a f**k about what you, evil capitalists think? If you wanna take on duties in defence of free software - please do so, you do not need our blessing for that. And if you do a good job, we will commend you for it. Otherwise, we will ignore you and keep up with *our* good job.

Ok. time to work now. Show us, by *example*, what your "new generation of evil capitalists" is capable of, besides yapping at us, that is<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:-)

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Re:ha ha!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 20, 2005 02:14 AM
Ol' Richie won't even use the puke hims-own self, but he recommends it to entire governments.

https://e.ututo.org.ar/xp/modules/news/article.ph<nobr>p<wbr></nobr> ?storyid=144

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debian with vrms can be used to make it free

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 17, 2005 06:40 PM
Debian users can apt-get a nifty little package called vrms. You can run your own Virtual RMS and it tells you which stuff is non-free. It helps you be aware of what's there that is non-free so you can remove it if you like and get a totally free system.

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Free

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 01, 2005 12:15 PM
Nice that it is really free. (Well, not Public Domain but enough free for FSF to say it's free).

I hope that many other distributions will follow this and become free too so that FSF can encourage them too.

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Debian

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 03, 2005 05:03 AM
Isn't DFSG-free more free than FSF-free? So Debian main would be a better choice for freedom, despite what Stallman has to say.

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Re:neh

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 02, 2005 01:45 PM
Amen to that.
This sounds like some source based distro alternative to debian, and I switched to gentoo because I was sick of the lack of software options. (ie: Mplayer, Java<nobr> <wbr></nobr>... etc )

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neh

Posted by: Administrator on April 30, 2005 03:32 AM
Seems rahther unfinished and unpolished at this stage. I prefer the real thing (Gentoo).

But heck, Gentoo **is** all about choices....

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