gNewSense Version 1.0 - Absolutely Free Linux Advocating Freedom

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This entry was posted on 11/6/2006 4:43 PM and is filed under Distros.

A recent announcement on for a new distro called gNewSense perked my attention. It seems that the Free Software Foundation, the group headed by Richard M Stallman, otherwise known as RMS, sponsored this project and basically was conceived "due to Frustrated by many Linux distributions which include (or make it easy to include) non-free software in their products, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) has decided to enter the Linux distribution market by sponsoring a new project called gNewSense. Based on Ubuntu Linux, the distribution, created by two Irish free software advocates Brian Brazil and Paul O'Malley, released its first stable version last week. The gNewSense mailing list immediately witnessed a rapid surge in traffic, indicating that the interest in the project is reasonably high, even at this early stage. Most of the discussion is currently revolving around possible improvements to the project's infrastructure and advocacy. If you strongly believe in the four software freedoms as advocated by the FSF, then gNewSense looks like a perfect distribution to use and an exciting project to join" quoting from DistroWatch Weekly, Issue 176, 6 November 2006

As clearly stated on Stallman's Free Software Foundation web site: Free software is a matter of liberty not price. You should think of "free" as in "free speech". The Four Software Freedoms mentioned are as follows:
  • Freedom Zero - the freedom to run the program for any purpose, any way you like.
  • Freedom One - the freedom to help yourself by changing the program to suit your needs.
  • Freedom Two - the freedom to help your neighbor by distributing copies of the program.
  • Freedom Three - the freedom to help build your community by publishing an improved version of the program so that others can gain the benefit of your work.
Now typically it is my practice to go over the install process as how any newbie to Linux might encounter, but since this is really an unbranded version of Ubuntu, that process can be followed along from in my Ubuntu review located here.

Instead, it is our goal to talk about the functionality of this distro, how it works on various machines compared to its proprietary ladened counterparts, and discuss a few topics about this gallant offering from Brian Brazil and Paul O'Malley. Therefore our normal package of Installation will get the same score as Ubuntu at 4 Pennies, although this one did seem to go smoother on a machine where the Live CD actually started. More on that later.


Download Here
Kernel - Kernel 2.6.15
Desktop - Unbranded Gnome only
FAQs -
Cost - FREE!!! ah, if you had to ask that one with this distro, your on the wrong planet
Special Features - Live installer, excellent icons/graphics, absolutely free from proprietary code, modules or "blobs"

Nitty Gritty:
Installation ( )

Please see Ubuntu review for detail of the Ubiquity install process

Starting ( )

One thing you notice once the Live CD finished loading was a nice and simple layout and good graphics. While this doesn't really show the power of Ubuntu under this hood, it is showing that this distro is not just taking all that Ubuntu's teams have done, strip out the logos and icons, and repacking back as their own.

Why didn't they put Free as in Beer... here, I don't know.

A quick tour of the applications and the main ones of note are the basics to what I like to call simple productivity. There is Firefox for your web needs along with Evolution that ties to the Gnome desktop. There is the Ekiga Softphone and the Gaim client for IM. Office Applications are not bare, using Open Office applications to keep up productivity.

One thing I really liked was the artwork of the login screen. Simple things make me happy I guess. But this is what really will set apart the look and feel of this distro from someone looking at Ubuntu.

Deep inside gNewSense is where the real changes happened. Basically they stripped all of the commercial components of the Kernel, those pesky little things like video drivers, wireless card drivers and other "blobs" as they call them and kept only the open source components. Now this did kill the functionality on my eMachines m5810 and m6805 laptop by dying on kernel failures which I am sure I could have prevented by telling the system to boot with "no acpi" or "pci=noapci" boot switches, but again I try to tailor this to newbies and how would they know about those issues? So I was really restricted to trying this on VMWare only. I did run the live on an older HP Desktop running an AMD processor and an HP6220 laptop, so I am sure it would install on these, but just getting it past the boot process was my goal. I am sure with the lack of some firmware "blobs" in the kernel, hardware will be hit or miss, so try before you buy on this one is absolutely necessary.

Bonus Stuff ( )

The largest bonus of gNewSense is the fact that it is completely free from proprietary code of any kind. I would also have to say there is a downside of Freedom. With the lack of any proprietary code in the distro, basically all the "cool" things go away. You can't play DVD's without codecs from libdvdcss and win32, you can't play mp3's without that codec and you sure as hell don't get 3D or wireless if you have any of the main vendors who do video or wireless. So in the end you are free and in control of your machine, but you are basically limited in the function and wow factor that the latest and greatest computing brings to consumers. Yes, you get on the internet, you can work, you can code with the best of them, but as for fun, well you better have a Play Station or XBox.

Another lacking aspect of the distribution right now is a lack of knowledge base that people can turn to, with no real Wiki or Forum to speak of, but since this is based on Ubuntu, knowledge for the base system is plentiful. I would like to see more direct support, but over time that will naturally evolve and no doubt will be stellar.

I did take a bit of time and emailed the development group with a couple of questions. What I wanted to know was:
1) What is your end goal with gNewSense?
2) I noticed you have FireFox included, does that mean you do not stand
behind the IceWeasel project and their issues with the FireFox Icon?
3) What are the plans to support PCI (embedded) Wireless cards for laptop users?
4) With the recent announcement of Novell and several people indicating that their new policy of "licensing" to Microsoft is actually a violation of GPL, what will gNewSense do in regards to supporting Evolution, Gnome, and and other Novell based software packages not mentioned?
5) How do you feel about people adding proprietary or non-open source packages to your distro in the future and is there any restriction in your license restricted said practice?

A couple of members of the community took the time to answer these for me, and I wish to thank them for doing so. Andreas replied back to number one with "A long-term sustainable distribution consisting of only Free Software as it is defined by the FSF", while Karl Goetz mentioned that he wanted "A 100% FSF Free distribution".

As for question two, both mentioned pretty much the same thing, as told by Andreas as "Firefox came along with Dapper, so it's not an active choice at this point. So far one of the most requested features is indeed the inclusion of the Iceweasel. The practical problems are the long time security support and active maintenance, and being a fledgling distribution there are little resources to dedicate to having strictly gNS native packages at the moment." In reading a couple of the email chains on the list, there is a lot of work moving to get the IceWeasel package into gNewSense and having Ubuntu support the extensions issue.

Number three got what I felt was going to be the answer, I just wanted to ask it anyway. Karl stated quite plainly that "If they run on Free software, they get support. If they run non-free software, they get no support. (non-free software includes non-free firmware)" This is following the four software freedoms to a tee, so one would naturally have expected. I guess I was hoping for some really intense effort to backward engineer, but again I think that goes against what the FSF is all about. Instead, they want the hardware people to come to them and open up the doors on what the hardware is really doing and why.

As for question number four, I was a bit aught off guard that a topic as hot as this one wouldn't be talked about more within the FSF, as it really impacts what people considered as being open, now possibly being closed. Karl mentioned in his response that "This hasn't been discussed much in our community to my knowledge. But if software is under the GPL it's under the GPL. And until some party tries by force to deny users the rights granted to them under the GPL it's mostly just a marketing gimmick and a scare tactic." While I agree that some people are making this out to be more that it really is, the fact still is there that by licensing some of their key components, Novell is basically moving away from GPL into a third party agreement. It will be interesting to see how this plays out for gNew, especially since Gnome and Evolution are the two key pieces still run by Novell.

The last question number five was just a thought to see how the team would react to people doing what I expect some will eventually do, once they realize that somethings just don't work, especially laptop users. I wanted to see how militant they were about this practice, to see if this was a hot topic or one they had already considered and possibly restricted by policy if not by license. I was very pleased by both answers, with Andreas clearly stating "We cant restrict the practice in licenses - that's the beauty of the gpl. The official line is (again afaik) we do not support people installing non-free, and will not assist them in this task. We wont however stop people setting up 3rd party repositories, because we cant. Personally, it seems odd to install a system for its freeness, then install non-free on it." Karl went on to add, "Obviously it can never be added to the distribution itself. And hopefully our community will prove strong to not setup third-party repositories to distribute proprietary software for gNewSense. The only official project statement so far is a promise to uphold the four software freedoms and there have been no such things as for instance an equivalent to the Debian social contract formulated yet." This really is what I was hoping was that the essence of the distro would be the key to controlling people doing what they want once they took the time to download. I agree with Andreas that if people plan on doing this, then probably Ubuntu itself is the better path. I just wanted to know that the goal wasn't to really try and place any restrictions in the code to limit the repositories that people can add in the future.

I would like to again thank Andreas, Karl, Brian and Paul for taking the time to send me notes and help me pull this information together. Hopefully these were questions on your mind and with the answers being open and clear, I think everyone who reads this will be happy with the responses, as I know I am.

Overall ( )

Is this what computing should be about? Well, that is never really on the mind of RMS or FSF. They are in the game of freedom of companies profiting from knowledge that should be open to the world. They are against DRM in how it licenses things you purchased away from your control. I applaud the efforts of these individuals and stand behind this distro 100% in what it is trying to do. However, as a realist I am into getting all of what my laptop that I paid $1700 for has to offer. I hate MS and their crappy code and BSOD. But I love to get on the internet with my wireless card. I hate the idea of having to pay to watch a movie that I paid for, but I love to be able to watch a movie on a plane ride across the world. I hate the idea of some video card company knowingly restricting its features only to promote their own agenda, but I love 3D features and eye candy. I wish I wasn't all of these things, and I feel that I am part of what the FSF is trying to combat; people willing to compromise their beliefs for functionality.

The other part of me is still an engineer and business person who understands some of the issues with just giving everything away for free. In my industry people want more wireless minutes, free phones and no dropped calls with coverage everywhere, yet they don't want towers and they hate paying their bills. Do I wish it were free, hell yah!!!! But reality then would be I wouldn't have a job, nor would about a million people world wide that work in the wireless industry. The fact remains that in order to make money, some things need to be proprietary and/or covered by IP. It sucks, but it is the world in which we live. Star Trek aside, the future is more of the same and until we get a remedy for greed and plain old corruption in industry, we will be governed by these truths.

I wish I could put this in the 5 Pennie review category, but right now it isn't the time for freedom for the sake of lack of function. Once the industry gets a bit farther along, or hardware people open up the cabinets and let out code to drive a lot of the hardware out there today, then this will be the model of what Linux should be and will most likely become. It is a bit ahead of its time, and that might be its undoing, but I for one will always have a copy of this on any machine of mine that will run it. Thank you gNewSense for taking a stand and giving the world Freedom. For those who have been looking for this, the team is definitely in need of help in many areas, so please get involved in either financial support or with your time and knowledge. Together with people of like mind, this distro will be what many FSF enthusiasts have been dreaming of for years: a distro that works and is completely free.

As always, if you appreciate what you have read here, or any Linux site for the matter, please remember that Free as in Speech is not the same as Free as in Beer. We need your help in supporting what we do, so please if you can donate here by the link on the side of the review. We truly enjoy bringing our view of various Linux distros and helping newbies get on track with their hopes of becoming free of MS and Patent Lawyers, so anything you can do to help will be greatly appreciated.

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    • 11/7/2006 4:28 PM Andrew Wigglesworth wrote:
      I'm a gNewSense user, I saw you questions on the mailing list, but thy had been answered by the time I saw them.

      I see that you wrote that you cannot play mp3's under gNewSense. This is not true. Mp3's can be played with gstreamer which has plugins for most Linux media players, and with the mpeglib plugin for the aRts sound demon.

      Of course, I would personally recommend avoiding mp3's where possible, and of course you cannot encode mp3's on gNewSense because of he patent restrictions on mp3 encoding.

      However, you can use "toolame" to encode MPEG-1 layer 2 files (mp3 is MPEG-1 layer 3) which apparently most media players which are capable of playing mp3 will play.

      Also most video formats can be played on gNewSense. This is using the ffmpeg package. The package description in the repositories is as follows:

      This package contains the ffplay multimedia player, the ffserver streaming server and the ffmpeg audio and video encoder. They support most existing file formats (AVI, MPEG, OGG, Matroska, ASF, ...) and encoding formats (MPEG, DivX, MPEG4, AC3, DV, ...).

      Something not mentioned in that description is the fact that you can play wmv files using ffplay. Yes, you read that right, wmv; and I've done it.

      There is also an ffmpeg plugin for gstreamer so that it will work with media players such as totem, though I have not got round to setting this up yet on my computer.

      gNewSense also automatically picked up and configured my Alesis 8USB sound mixer (I use it to record live music ie. with me playing) in the same way hat my previous installation of SUSE had (yes, I'm a SUSE refugee!).

      So far my experience with gNewSense has been very good, and quite suprising. I've learnt a lot, such as being able to play so much media through completely free software and I will hopefully find some time to help out with the project.

      I now have a free desktop :-)
      Reply to this
      1. 11/7/2006 4:50 PM KnoLinuxGuy wrote:
        Thank you for the very detailed update to my review Andrew. I noticed you were asking in the email threads requesting KDE be supported. How is that going?

        I didn't realize that you could play MP3's without licensing the player with the company who owns that, so I was assuming that FSF would not cower to that request. I am copying this I found from Linux Mint.

        Here is a very interesting text from Richard Stallmann about this:

        "Imagine that each time you made a software design decision, and especially whenever you used an algorithm that you read in a journal or implemented a feature that users ask for, you took a risk of being sued. That's how it is today in the US, because of software patents. Soon it may be the same in most of Europe [...]

        In the US and some other countries, free software for MP3 is impossible; in 1998, US developers who had developed free MP3-generation programs were threatened with patent lawsuits, and forced to withdraw them. Some are now distributed in European countries -- but if the European Patent Office makes this planned change, they may become unavailable there too. [...] 

        Copyright 1999 Richard Stallman
        Verbatim copying and redistribution of this entire article is permitted provided this notice is preserved

        As for movies, yes those player types are supported, but not the encoded type you get with commercial players. That too requires a license and in fact there is a lot of question as to if playing DVD on Linux is a violation of the DMCA. See article here.

        There are many distros that now include DVD players, including Mandriva with LinDVD that is fully licensed, and then others which include libdvdcss and win32 codecs, but these are both licensed packages and therefore I would assume off limits for a package like gNewSense which is trying to stay 100% free.

        As for playing wmv files, that has been debated a lot, as is a central point of IP concerns with the Novell deal, but it is good to know that the ffplay package allows that to function. Most people have used the w32codecs, which I am sure would not sit will with the FSF community.

        Thanks again for your post and I am glad you are so happy with gNewSense.



        Reply to this
        1. 11/8/2006 6:59 AM Andrew Wiglesworth wrote:
          A slight update to my previous comments.

          Software patents are not implemented/legal or whatever in Europe. In Britain I am tresspassing on no patent or licence restrictions by using so-called US patented procedures.

          Even in the US most software patents are on pretty shaky ground.

          As far as mp3 encoding is concerned I am happy to have that removed since I don't want to be encoding to non-free formats anyway. However, and lets be clear, it is not restricted by software patents in Britain.
          Reply to this
          1. 11/8/2006 8:24 AM KnoLinuxGuy wrote:
            Your right Andrew and I forget that I am running in the US under the umbrella of stupidity and that only here is there a restriction of playing DVDs as a violation (in some people's eyes, unfortunately they are the courts) of DMCA.

            I agree that mp3 is a crappy format in that it is closed, I try to stay away from it as much as possible myself. The issue there is that people use it so much on the internet so I just want to make sure that I legally play things.

            DVD issues are complicated, and yes lbdvdcss is open and free, but the codecs on the audio side typically require w32, which are not "free" and open. Also, the act of getting around the encryption is the problem, not playing the dvd. It is the catch22 of open source in that you can get around things, but in doing so have you broken the law? Whose law have you broken? I agree that it is stupid, but when any lawyer gets involved what do you expect?

            Thanks for the continued comments.



            Reply to this
    • 11/7/2006 7:04 PM Inmortus wrote:
      I'm not really sure I agree with this... Of course the idea of a fully free distro sounds good, but that freedom ironically leads to restrictions... With this distro you are free not to play DVDs, and free not to have a better support... I don't mean to sound harsh, and I know this is usually a hot topic, but the FSF seems to focus on what you can't do more than on what you can do... I do feel it's ironic that they talk about freedom, and at the same time their idea of freedom is keeping people from using stuff which they don't consider "right"...
      Reply to this
      1. 11/8/2006 7:20 AM Andrew Wigglesworth wrote:
        It's not free software that imposes restrictions. You're really looking through the "wrong end of the telescope" here.

        For instance, the freedom to play DVD's on Linux is not something that was taken away by free software. In fact, the encryption on consumer DVD's was broken and the person who did i wished to freely distribute the procedure. However, this was deemed as illegal i many places. This is not a matter of security or free software, but a deliberate restriction imposed for the benefit of distributers and manufacturers.

        I don't want hardware, and secret binaries to run it, that only lets me use my computer by special permission of and only in ways sanctioned by a some manufacturer or software company.

        The Free Software Foundation does not and has never prevented 'people from using stuff which they don't consider "right"' It doesn't have that power, and as the article points out, there is no way to stop people running non-free software on gNewSense. It would be rather a strange thing to do, though.

        The Free Software Foundation has never shifted it's focus from free software because that's what it's all about.

        For desktop computers, the aim was never simply UNIX on the desktop, but a free desktop. The FSF (and others) want to provide that desktop to people who want it. This is a simple implementation of their aims.

        disclaimer: I do not speak in any official way for the FSF, I'm just a supporter of it's work.
        Reply to this
      2. 11/8/2006 8:32 AM KnoLinuxGuy wrote:
        These are hot topics and I told my wife that I was writing a review that would probably cause a few fun debates. This is the line in the sand where people wanting to be free from microsoft combats the FSF on ideals. Sure, there is no debate that what they are doing is for the good of all open source movement, but I agree in that they really don't have the right to tell me what I can or can't do either. I am the master of my software and hardware, so if I want to put a proprietary video driver on my machine so I can have 3D, guess what? I have that right. If I want to put a DVD player that is licensed, guess what? I have that right.

        This debate reminds me of christianity. There are many people calling themselves christian, but there are so many types of christian that you never know what you can or can't do in each other's eyes. In the end, each and every one of us has the right to worship how we want. The same can be said for linux and open source. We all get to determine how much proprietary code we are will to deal with in order to have the functionality we want.

        Thanks for your comment and best wishes.



        Reply to this
    • 11/8/2006 1:34 AM Matthias wrote:
      Hello friends,

      it is possible with free software under gNewSense
      DVD's to play, because Libdvdcss is also free software.

      Apology for my broken English!

      Reply to this
      1. 11/15/2006 6:28 PM Andrew Wigglesworth wrote:
        Hi Matthias,

        Yes, it is quite possible to install libdvdcss on gNewSense the same as it is on any GNU/Linux distribution.
        Reply to this
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