29 March 2007

The dangers of proprietary software

In recent times I have become a great fan of Kubuntu, a distribution of GNU/Linux that is based upon Debian GNU/Linux which uses the KDE desktop environment to provide a pre-configured, easy to use desktop operating system suitable for general use particularly by those who wouldn't consider themselves to be experts in computer operating systems. The current released version is 6.10, also known as 'Edgy Eft' but I am currently running the beta version of the next version known as 'Feisty Fawn'. This has proved to be remarkably stable for beta software, and does everything I could possibly want with remarkably little intervention required to configure it. However, a few days ago I had a nasty shock. I downloaded and installed the latest updates (as I usually do), continued to use my PC as usual and then shut it down for the night. The next morning when I tried to boot up, I was left with no graphical desktop and little clue as to what had gone wrong.

Now I consider myself to be in the vast middle ground between novice and expert, but it took me quite a while (and an experimental fresh install to a spare partition to rule out my own inept tweaking) to work out that the problem was with the proprietary driver I was using with my NVIDIA graphics card. One of the updates had installed a later version of the proprietary driver, but unknown to me at the time, NVIDIA had just dropped support from this driver for a large number of their less recent cards. Given that my graphics card is less than 3 years old, I was somewhat dismayed about this.

Now it's true that NVIDIA do provide an even older driver series that supports my card (but with reduced functionality) but to pay good money to a company for their product only for them to effectively pull the rug out from under me is, to say the least a bit of an insult. Now to be fair to NVIDIA, they have subsequently clarified that the previous version of the driver which I was using (and which the Ubuntu folks had kindly packaged for my convenience) will continue to be supported, but this wasn't clear at the time. You could even quite justifiably say that as I was running beta software, this was, essentially, my own fault.

So why am I writing about this? Essentially, if I choose to run proprietary software then I am totally at the mercy of the provider to continue to support that software. In this particular case it is a kernel module and were any security issues to be found with it the consequences could be serious - and there would be absolutely nothing I could do about it, apart from ceasing to use that software. In many situations that would be next to impractical. However, I know from experience that I can have much greater confidence in the continued support for the Free software I use because, quite simply, there are a large number of organisations that support it, but failing that I can support it myself. After all, the four essential freedoms of Free software ensure that I am able to do this.

So having got my fingers burnt (along with many others) by this issue, I am increasingly wary of proprietary software. Although I try to achieve everything I possibly can using just Free software, there are still a few areas where this is less than easy. Graphics card drivers are one, as are Wi-Fi drivers (although there are a number of Wi-Fi solutions available now that don't require any proprietary software). For the rest, I find that the Free software stack (in my cased based on Kubuntu GNU/Linux, but there are many other options here) provides for my needs far better than any of the proprietary operating system environments I have tried to date. I do have very extensive experience of one proprietary operating system environment provider over nearly a couple of decades, but I have to say that I have no incentive to even try their latest offering. If their past behaviour is an accurate indication of their future behaviour then I am clear that they will use whatever method they can (including many illegal methods) to lock me in to their products and try to extract money from my at every opportunity. I would say 'Thanks but no thanks' to that, except that you can miss off the initial 'Thanks'.

Copyright © 2007 Donald Allwright
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