One of the most interesting thing about slippery slopes is how you never seem to be standing at the top of them, looking down. The slope seems fine at the top, and it’s only once you start down it that you realise this could end up with some broken limbs.
When Ubuntu was formed, Debian were having a debate about how to treat GFDL documentation. It was their opinion that the GFDL was inherently non-free, and they’ve since taken steps to remove all such licensed documentation from their main distribution. We took a more pragmatic approach, and decided that it maintained the spirit of freedom, and thus we continue to this day to ship that documentation in our main distribution.
A similar discussion resulted in the handling of data files such as graphics, icons, fonts, etc. We decided that such things didn’t necessarily need to ship with corresponding source code, as frequently they don’t have any such thing or when they do, it’s just as easy to modify the data file directly.
The slope didn’t seem at all slippery back then.
Then came the issue of firmware, binary blobs in the kernel which are uploaded into a flash (or similar) chip in the hardware. Could we distribute these? On one hand, these blobs have always existed, they just used to be in ROM in the hardware; the move to firmware doesn’t change that. On the other hand, they’re machine code and if we had the source, we could improve the hardware as well.
And what if we didn’t distribute them? Our users would be stuck without being able to use some fairly (to them) critical parts of their computer.
In the end, the argument that firmware isn’t inherently any less free on the disk than in the ROM won, so we opted to continue to ship it.
Perhaps that slope is a bit slippery, but we’ve got a good foothold.
Of course, at that point somebody notices the binary “Hardware Access Layer” in the Atheros WiFi card driver. It’s not firmware, it’s run on the host processor, and is separate to “comply with FCC law”. (The ipw3495 driver has a binary daemon that allegedly performs the same legal function).
Again, if we don’t distribute that, a large section of laptop users will not be able to use their WiFi cards. A compromise was reached; because the driver is necessary we’d ship it, but in a special restricted component that makes it absolutely clear that it’s not completely free. Users could choose to remove that component and any packages from it, to keep their system untainted.
Ok, foothold wasn’t as strong as we thought; tumbled a bit, but we’re definitely on solid ground now!
That’s what we thought, anyway. Unfortunately it seems that there’s a point a little bit lower down the slope which has a fantastic vista. The views from there are just incredible, people are saying, much prettier than where we are now. The only trouble is that we’re not sure there’s a foothold down there, if we try for the better view, we could end up broken at the bottom.
I’m talking, of course, about the NVIDIA binary X driver. (Some reports/blogs/etc. indicate we’re also considering the ATI fglrx driver, this isn’t true — that driver doesn’t support AIGLX, so it’s not being considered.)
We’ve shipped this driver in our restricted section, but not enabled it by default. It’s been there for people who want it to switch on, if they know how, but the default driver has always been the free (albeit obfuscated) one in the Xorg distribution.
The problem is that users do not need this driver, they can get decent enough 2D graphics support from the free(ish) driver. In the long term, they may even get decent 3D graphics support from the nouveau driver effort.
And just to drive the point home, some of our Linux friends shipped similar support in their last releases. They don’t enable the NVIDIA binary driver, but this means that a large percentage of their user base can’t get the bling without manual hackery.
We needed a way to catch up with both the commerical operating systems and other Linux distributions; we have a policy of not doing our own software development, but only packaging what others have developed, so the only way for us to get ahead was to package something that others wouldn’t.
Which brings us back to the NVIDIA binary driver. If we install that by default, we’ll be bringing a 3D desktop to more people. And we’ll gain a step ahead of the other distributions.
Will our users care? To be brutally honest, I think the answer is no! In fact, I suspect our users will largely love us for this decision. Most probably already install the NVIDIA driver anyway, because they think it’s better, or because (sadly, like me) they have a card combination not supported by the free one.
Will this make any difference to the effort to get NVIDIA to free up the driver, or at least the specs? Sorry, but to be honest again, I don’t think it’ll make one little difference. Linux distributions have been refusing to install it for years, and yet NVIDIA haven’t budged in their position.
Perhaps a new tactic is required. Maybe if we do install it, we’ll be more likely to be chosen by OEMs as we can actually support the hardware they install. Then later, we may be able to actually affect their decision as to what hardware they install, and maybe then NVIDIA will pay attention.
Will this change the perception of Ubuntu in the Linux developer community? I’m not sure about this one, I think that those who already feel strongly about the distribution of binary drivers are probably already pretty grumpy at us distributing things like the Atheros and ipw3495 drivers. I suspect this will change the opinion of a lot of people who’ve been on the fence until now, probably equal in both directions.
Will we be able to sleep at night?
Despite all of the above, personally I still think that installing and using the nvidia driver by default, when the nv driver would do, is the wrong decision.
If the nv driver doesn’t work, I’m willing to accept the nvidia driver being used; provided that there’s some message informing the user what’s happened, why it has happened, and which alternate graphics cards they can purchase if they aren’t willing to accept a non-free binary driver.
If the nv driver is good enough for 2D, I would prefer that we instead disabled the 3D desktop effects for this group of users (by default). A similar message could explain why this is disabled, again which alternate graphics cards provide this by default, but also provide a button for the user to enable it if they wish. While we should make the correct moral decision for the defaults, we shouldn’t stand in the way of users who wish to make a different decision for themselves.
Later as the nouveau driver becomes stable, we may be able to activate 3D support for nvidia users by default.
I think that preserves our current foothold, we’d only activate it if there is no free alternative. Where there is, we’d be educating users about why they may wish to consider alternatives to NVIDIA in future, while at the same time not getting too much in their way if they want to see the better view down the slope.
Unfortunately it’s not my decision, and I suspect that the lure of the bling will win out. With any luck, we’ll find a foothold there, and the fallout of doing so won’t be too bad. I’m just worried that once we compromise on this, we’ll start compromising on other things … would we replace Firefox with a non-free web browser that rendered web pages “better”?
The slippery slope only gets steeper from here on …