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gNewSense distro frees Ubuntu

By Kurt Edelbrock on May 30, 2008 (7:00:00 PM)

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Free software lovers can rejoice at this month's release of gNewSense 2.0 (pronounced "guh-new-sense"), the latest version of the popular distribution based on Ubuntu Hardy Heron. Code-named DeltaH, this operating system includes only software where users have the right to run, study, adapt, redistribute, and improve all of the software and code. To that end, gNewSense is supported and sponsored by the Free Software Foundation (FSF). The strict freedom-ware requirement excludes a great deal of software, including proprietary drivers for wireless and video cards, leaving most users with a less functional -- albeit less tainted -- derivative of Ubuntu 8.04.

gNewSense is a great alternative to Gobuntu, the Canonical-sponsored free derivative of Ubuntu. According to its wiki page, the 8.04 version of Gobuntu hasn't been released due to a less-than-optimal reaction from the community. Gobuntu used the same repositories as Ubuntu, and the Ubuntu live CD can achieve the same installation as Gobuntu by merely selecting the free-software-only option in the installer (press F6 twice at the boot menu). Also, Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu, has indicated that he would rather focus on gNewSense because the work on that distribution can help the Ubuntu community as a whole.

Ubuntu minus non-free software

gNewSense removes more than 100 pieces of proprietary code and firmware from the Ubuntu kernel, including support for ATI and Nvidia graphics chipsets and wireless networking drivers. In the current version, the non-free GLX OpenGL extensions for X were removed from the standard X window server. Firefox has been replaced with Epiphany to avoid issues revolving around Mozilla trademark claims. Epiphany is a good fit, as it is based on the GNOME libraries and integrates well into the desktop.

The distribution is based on precompiled packages, much like Ubuntu, and provides its own repositories for installing and updating software. Ubuntu's proprietary Restricted software repository is not included and can't be easily added, as it can in Gobuntu. The gNewSense Universe repository, which includes software that isn't part of the core system, is enabled by default. All of the non-free documentation and artwork included with Ubuntu is removed, though the wallpaper and icons in the DeltaH version have been redone to beautify the desktop a little bit. The latest version also includes support for Debian source packages.

Most users will choose to install gNewSense from the live CD. When users are ready to partition their disk and install the distribution their hard drives, they can do so using the Ubiquity installer from the live environment.

All of the applications you'll find in Ubuntu are also included in gNewSense, with the exception of Firefox. The build-essential packages and gcc -- which provide support for compiling software from source -- are included, as well as the text-editor Emacs, and applications such as OpenOffice.org, Pidgin, and the GIMP. Users get a full set of desktop applications along with some built-in support for developing and installing applications from source.

With the Builder script included with gNewSense, you can create your own Linux distribution using entirely free software. This is perfect for people who don't want to add or distribute software with restricted or limited-usage licenses. It's easy to use: distro developers only need to put basic information, such as the distribution name and a list of included packages, into a configuration file, and the script will create the repository and the CD images for you. The only downside is that it requires downloading about 40GB worth of packages, so a fast Internet connection is strongly recommended. This approach could be better than using something like AptOnCD for giving your distribution to friends or using it as a rescue backup.

Why bother with gNewSense?

So why would someone want to install a less robust Ubuntu clone that most likely won't work with some widely used hardware? To be perfectly honest, most users won't want to use gNewSense on a daily basis, if at all. Yet, there are some benefits for developers. Putting the ideological benefits of free software aside (though they can be quite persuasive), gNewSense is the perfect distribution for developers to use to test their hardware for free software compatibility. There's a substantial benefit for hardware manufacturers to provide Linux support out of the box without the installation of special kernel modules or proprietary drivers, and using gNewSense is a great way to do it. Also, gNewSense can function as a "model example" for other software and distribution maintainers. Because it consistently sacrifices ease and usability for compliance, it gives the world a true picture of what a free operating system looks like. It is the actualization of an ideal that has been previously hard to operationalize. The FSF can reap benefits from the existence of gNewSense as well: for one thing, it now has a distribution it can wholeheartedly recommend, sponsor, and endorse.

The most persuasive argument for gNewSense is somewhat of a paradox, because it relies on the distribution's weaknesses. Every problem, bug, and issue stemming from the single-minded use of free software is a vivid suggestion to developers about areas they should focus on. This work -- the discovery of problem packages and the creation of viable free software solutions -- is central to the logic alluded to by Shuttleworth. By discovering the issues with software support and fixing them through both encouraging hardware vendors for fixes and developing better free firmware and drivers, developers are creating a benefit for the entire community.

gNewSense may be a nuisance to use, but it might just be a key factor in the evolution of Linux.

Kurt Edelbrock is a technology journalist, blogger, and university student. He writes for a variety of open source publications, and serves as a technical consultant for a large public university.

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on gNewSense distro frees Ubuntu

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gNewSense website link is broken

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 117.196.133.16] on May 30, 2008 08:29 PM
Hi, wonderful article.
There's a small typo in the href.... a '/' is missing after http:

<a href="http:/www.gnewsense.org/">gNewSense 2.0</a>

tagnu

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The hardware testing angle--that's an important issue

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 151.188.247.104] on May 30, 2008 09:25 PM
I have typically used two Free Software OS's to determine whether or not I'll buy a given piece of hardware:

Debian GNU/Linux
OpenBSD

In Debian's case, I do this hardware check with *only* the base repository enabled and no others. Nope, not even "universe". Remember, this is a *hardware* check. In OpenBSD's case, I don't use any other packages or ports, only what comes on the official CD, for the same reason.

Going forward, I will substitute gNewSense for Debian for HW testing (no slam on Debian here; I use it a lot in production and will certainly continue!). OpenBSD will also remain, due to their strict Free Software stance. And yes, I *do* make my hardware purchases based on this kind of FOSS compatibility.

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Re: The hardware testing angle--that's an important issue

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 59.182.150.42] on May 31, 2008 05:34 AM
There is no "universe" in debian. Only main, contrib, and non-free.

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Why even bother?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.233.174.180] on May 31, 2008 02:42 AM
Just give up with the new distros already. Linux F-heads are still in-fighting with one another over who should be the top contender - whether it'd be at the distro level or at the desktop manager level. Instead of combining forces to topple M$ and work out the almost infinite number of usability issues that it has, they choose to branch off and continue making different distros, thus creating more internal bugs to worry about with their software and taking focus away from what should be the real goal

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Re: Why even bother?

Posted by: ompaul on May 31, 2008 10:17 PM
I was going to reply to this but then I thought - why bother. It is anonymous eh?
to paraphrase or qoute "Wilde" I can resist everything but temptation
The object of Free Software is not to take down M$ or Microsoft for that matter, you seem to be a tad confused.
Linux F-heads .... interesting choice of words, puts you outside the GNU/Linux circle I guess eh?
In other news Theo did scream about something being there, and did not say what if it is not GLX which we removed after his ranting - cos we went looking - would he like to tell people in a civil way eh?

[Modified by: ompaul on May 31, 2008 10:21 PM]

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Re: Why even bother?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 204.50.208.4] on June 02, 2008 06:01 PM
"
Linux F-heads are still in-fighting with one another over who should be the top contender
"

We call this darwinism or competition within a capitalist economy; it's what drives people to create better code. But, if you think there isn't the odd chair thrown or yelling hidden behind your precious proprietary business doors, more power too you.

Now, I'm going to go do something with my computer without asking brother Bill if it's ok with him.

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gNewSense distro frees Ubuntu

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 87.196.225.131] on May 31, 2008 09:53 AM
«a less robust Ubuntu clone» Less robust why? I'm using it and I don't think gNewSense is any less robust than Ubuntu. Actually, I find it more robust because it aims to use only free software.

«To be perfectly honest, most users won't want to use gNewSense on a daily basis, if at all» Well, I'm not an hacker, neither I can write a line of code. Yet, I use gNewSense in my desktop and «I'm lovin' it» (hope Macdonald's doesn't sue me xD)

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gNS

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 67.170.183.213] on May 31, 2008 01:10 PM
1 "freedom-ware" --it is called free software. 2 "most userse will choose to install gNS from the live cd" --as opposed to what? 3 "create your own Linux distribution" --it's a distribution of the modified GNU system; GNU/Linux. 4 "most users wont want to use gNS on a daily basis, if at all" --how about we keep it sane and not guess; seems to me most users would want their freedom. 5 "consistently sacrifices ease and usability for compliance" --i find no difficult in ease and of use; perhaps you aren't wearing your helmet? 6 "the fsf now has a distribution it can wholeheartedly recommend, sponsor, and endorse" --the fsf wholeheartedly recommended, sponsored, and endorsed ututo before gNS; and remains doing so. 7 "the most persuasive argument for gNS is somewhat of a paradox, because it relies on the distribution's weaknesses" --it is a strength, not a weakness. 8 "gNS may be a nuisance to use, but it might just be a key factor in the evolution of Linux" --the distribution of the modifed gnu system, gnu/linux, is great to use and logically follows, as linux is an operating system kernel, in this case, the gnu system, does influence its development.

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Some minor changes I would suggest in the article.

Posted by: ompaul on May 31, 2008 01:41 PM
This is not a line by line take down of the article it is a simple take on a few of the items in the article.

In the article it said:
"freedom-ware"
I think this is wrong, it should say Free Software, there is stuff called freeware with is public domain and is not is not free as in freedom and the use of these words suggest they have a tighter binding than in fact they do.
Quick check to see if your software is Free as in Freedom.

* The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
* The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs.
* The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour. (Yeah I am a european ;-))
* The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits .

Access to the source code is a precondition for the second and forth lines there.

In the article it said:
"Firefox has been replaced with Epiphany to avoid issues revolving around Mozilla trademark claims."

Actually we have no problem with the trademark claims.
After all GNU is a registered trademark!

Now to the meat of this problem, the rules around the trademark say if you alter upstream you can't call your software FireFox so we did not in version 1.0 we called it Burning Dog.

Why did we choose to change the way the program worked (which we are entitled to do under its licence, should we have a need and we do).

The comments on builder seem to miss the point, you could of course use AptOnCd as you suggest, there are several other ways, however to build our own version we choose to make a mirror so we would have a full tree to go through.

One of the FSFs requirements is that you don't point to or suggest non free software with your software for them to endorse it at Free Software. As our aim was to bring our distro into compliance with their guidelines, we could not suggest nor could we use FireFox as it suggests though the extensions non free software.

In version 1 we got an alternative version out the door, we called ours "burning dog" as a pun on FireFox.

We had some problems removing the code that allows user of the browser download none free software. This meant to get version 2 out the door we dropped it as the base for our browser and substituted epiphany.

I would like to thank Brian for the last two years of work on gNewSense, there are plenty of others who have helped in and out of the FSF, in particular the following people, Ted, Justin, Ward, Karl, Peter, BMH and MRS (not a typo), RMS one or more people called Matt and the two guys called Chris to mention but a few. It has been trying at times but the outcome seems interesting.

There are a lot of GNU/Linux systems out there, just some of them are FSF endorsed for some of the reasons outlined above and more.
My parting shot (just to give someone the chance to call me a zealot totally misusing that word and its historical origins ;-))
At the end of the day if the binary driver fails you can't fix it your system is now broken and so I ask "Why use them?".

Regards, Paul O'Malley

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gNewSense distro frees Ubuntu

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 210.4.12.244] on May 31, 2008 05:24 PM
I'm a novice and really wouldn't want to butt heads with more experienced people here, why on earth would I want to install an OS that's a tad less functional and less compatible with my computer? aside from being a 'die-hard all I want is free software in my PC' kind of guy and like you said, HW testing?

this strike a chord in me for I've been trying to find a distro out there that is very light but has all the bells and whistles I'd need without having to resort to apt get or whatnot since I'd be installing it on PCs without an internet connection...

and yeah, remastering has crossed my mind :(

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Re: gNewSense distro frees Ubuntu

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 87.196.157.125] on May 31, 2008 09:16 PM
This is the kind of ideas this article, unfortunately, gives. People get the feeling that, by using only free software, gNewSense is «less functional» and «less compatible».

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gNewSense distro frees Ubuntu

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 76.90.13.168] on June 01, 2008 02:29 AM
> At the end of the day if the binary driver fails you can't fix it your system is now broken and so I ask "Why use them?".

Well, if you couldn't use the device anyways, seeing as there is no "free" driver for it, then, well...

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RE: Some minor changes I would suggest in the article.

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 201.67.11.169] on June 01, 2008 05:52 AM
> [...] there is stuff called freeware with is public domain and is not is not free as in freedom [...]

Freeware is not free software. Public domain is. Therefore, freeware cannot be public domain.


André Caldas.

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RE: gNewSense distro frees Ubuntu

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 201.67.11.169] on June 01, 2008 06:02 AM
> I'm a novice and really wouldn't want to butt heads with more experienced people here, why on earth would I want to install an OS that's a tad less functional and less compatible with my computer? aside from being a 'die-hard all I want is free software in my PC' kind of guy and like you said, HW testing?

Before gNewSense, you would have only free software in you computer only if you were a 'die-hard all I want is free software in my PC'. Now, with gNewSense, you can have only free software in your computer even if you are just a 'gee, I would feel better if I could avoid all those proprietary software'.

You can minimize the use of proprietary software, suppose you added a non-free repository to your gNewSense, just because you needed SUN's Java on your browser, for instance. Then you can have goals like: I will get rid of this Java as soon as a package with a GPL SUN Java is available. It would be easier to manage this because you would be aware of exactly what non-free software you would have.

Governments could avoid buying hardware that does not work on free-software. When they buy it, they could specify, that all the hardware listed on the specs should work properly on gNewSense.


André Caldas.

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gNewSense distro frees Ubuntu

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 60.53.67.123] on June 02, 2008 03:19 PM
Free software and proprietary software should exist together.

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What happened to the Linux Drive project (Sorry, can't recall the official name)

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 203.27.196.50] on June 03, 2008 06:03 AM
Greetings everyone.
By this time I am officially confused.
Several months back I read in the Linux press that a project had been started whose charter was to create Linux Drivers where they do not currently exist and the only alternative was to use a proprietry driver. All you needed to do was contact them. They had programmers at the ready.
A short follow-up piece a few weeks later had the head of this project stating the world had not exactly beaten a path to their door. Only a hand-full of requests for the creation of a driver had been received.
We don't seem to be able to co-ordinate ourselves too well. An attempt to resolve driver problems was offered and no one came.
I have only one question - why?

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gNewSense distro frees Ubuntu

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 63.227.13.50] on June 03, 2008 10:51 PM
Sounds more like gNonSense to me. But, to each his own, I guess.

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everything worked

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 77.44.19.126] on June 11, 2008 03:54 PM
I just gave gNewSense a try (live, not installed), mostly out of curiosity. From this review and some others I expected to find it problematic but actually everything worked fine. My centrino laptop booted with Intel ipw2200 wireless, power management, screen resolution, sound all working flawlessly. In terms of hardware support and automatic configuration this is at least as good as any other distro I've used on this particular hardware and better than most. Like a lot of people I sometimes feel a little uncertain about the differences between copyright, patent, trademark issues and their implications for distribution. I clicked on a movie file (xvid in .avi container) expecting a failure, but instead totem opened, offered to search for suitable codecs, found the appropriate gstreamer plug-ins, installed them and played me the movie. As far as multimedia decoding goes it seems pretty good though libdvdcss and mplayer (and software which depends on it) aren't in the repos despite being GPL but I assume this is as much to do with USA law (DMCA) and patent law rather than licensing. I'm a Debian user and have no reason to change but for people who are looking for an FSF approved distro I suggest they ignore the negativity found in reviews of gNewSense and at least give it a try because if your hardware is well supported by free drivers it should work very nicely and it's easy enough for the user to add software which is free (i.e. licensed under GPL or similar) but poses distribution problems such as libdvdcss and mplayer.

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