Linspire Announces Freespire Distribution
New Distro Comes in Free and Proprietary Flavors
Is the world ready for another community Linux distro?
That's the question being asked and answered today at the 4th Annual Desktop Linux Summit. Once known as a community-supported alternative to the Linspire distribution, the Freespire name is about to rise again from the ashes of obscurity--only this time as a distro completely sponsored and endorsed by Linspire itself.
The new Freespire distro was announced Monday by Linspire President and CEO Kevin Carmony during his keynote address to Summit attendees. Freespire will be a Debian-based, community-driven and -supported project tied to the commercial Linspire distribution, Carmony outlined, in much the same way as Fedora Core and openSUSE relate to their parent commercial distros, Red Hat Linux and SUSE Linux, respectively.
But there the similarity ends and Linspire is being quite vocal in outlining the differences.
Much of what makes Linspire unique amongst Linux distributions is its focus on the desktop and the company's willingness to incorporate fully-licensed versions of proprietary software and drivers that allow end-users to perform operations--such as viewing a movie on DVD media legally in the US--that might not be afforded to users of other distributions.
This approach has tended to polarize some members of the Linux community away from Linspire since it does not maintain a "pure" open-source philosophy, according to Carmony, who spoke with LinuxPlanet prior to his keynote address today. But, at the same time, these proprietary applications and codecs make Linspire (and therefore Linux) more attractive to end-users and developers from outside the Linux community.
Which is why Freespire will be released in two flavors: a completely open-source only version, which will not have any proprietary software packages, and a version that contains the legally licensed versions of proprietary software.
The decision to offer these two versions represents Linspire's desire to give end-users as much functionality as possible. "iPods, DVDs... Linspire embraces all of that," Carmony stated.
If the Freespire name sounds familiar, that's because it was originally a community version of Linspire conceived and implemented by Andrew Betts, a member of Linspire's Insider Program. Without realizing it, Betts gave the project the name Freespire, not realizing that Linspire has started working on its Freespire project in 2004.
According to Linspire, Betts did not intend for his project, a non-proprietary version of Linspire, to become public. But when it was discovered by the Distrowatch site, the project gained more noteriety, which ultimately led to changing Betts' Freespire name to SquiggleOS. Linspire was never involved in Betts' Freespire project, though Betts was eventually afforded an opportunity to provide input on Linspire's version. Betts, the company reports, is now one of the members of the Freespire Leadership Board, along with Carmony, Debian Founder and Free Standards Group CTO Ian Murdock, Win4Lin CEO Jim Curtin, and noted Linux developer Jono Bacon, among others.
Carmony's path to being an active community leader didn't start off on a positive note. While, Carmony has become a huge fan of Linux since he started working for Linspire (n�e Lindows) as employee no. 1 five years ago, at first he was not impressed with the functionality of desktop Linux.
"I looked at it back then, and I told Michael [Robertson, founder and chairman of Linspire] 'this is garbage,'" Carmony recalled. ""Now, though, it's not garbage at all. But without the proprietary software and codecs we have, it's still too limited."
A free version of Linspire has been a long time in coming, Carmony said, but there's a reason why his company has waited until now to implement the project. Simply put, Linspire did not feel the market was ready for a community-driven distro that included proprietary software. Over the span of the company's lifetime, Carmony explained, the community's negative reaction to using proprietary software has softened quite a bit. He also feels that limiting features to promote software freedom for freedom's sake is actually eliminating choices for the end users.
This is not to say Linspire isn't cognizant of the need to make software open, which is why the company also announced today that they will be opening the source code for their Click N' Run (CNR) application management software, the primary tool users must use to purchase proprietary codecs and applications, such as DVD-viewing software.
The actual release of Freespire is not scheduled to take place until August, likely during the next LinuxWorld West conference in San Francisco. The reason for the delay, Carmony said, is to give potential users and developers a chance to discuss the overall goals for the Freespire project. The company is very anxious to get dialog about the project going so they can make the actual technology release that much more of a success.
The decision to include proprietary software in Freespire does not solely revolve around the end-user. Carmony outlined that Linspire hopes that the added functionality will be a bigger draw for developers outside of the Linux community to take another look at Linux as a tool they can use and develop for. In the past, Windows and Mac developers tended to look at Linux with some disdain. Now, Carmony added, they can move past that attitude and feel better about working with Linux.
There is also the possible side effect of getting more development work done on open source versions of proprietary software featured in Freespire. "If you give users and developers a choice between the NVIDIA driver and an open source version of that same driver, and they discover that the proprietary version has better performance, that could spur the open source development team on," Carmony said.
In the long run, Linspire hopes that by introducing proprietary software now in a desktop Linux distribution, the ultimate goal of achieving more market share will be reached. And from that position, Carmony explained, Linux companies will be in a much better place to start influencing ISVs and content providers away from poor technological implementations, such as DRM.
The Freespire web site is now open for project discussion and more information.