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Tony Mobily [opinions]

Abusing the word "free" in software: what's really free in the Google market and in Ubuntu's market? [market] [linux] [gpl] [money]

I am becoming more and more convinced that the real thread to free software (and I am talking here about software released under a free license, not software that you can download and use for free) is contempt. Proprietary software is a competitor, but not a real threat. Proprietary software cannot really kill free software: no matter how many law suits you start, how many patents you file, how many pre-installed versions of Windows you have, common sense will always win. Contempt, however, the the real danger.

If I use my Android phone, and then my Ubuntu machine, both based on GNU/Linux or Linux, and I realise that I simply cannot browse free applications and just see those ones, then I realise that something is wrong.

Very wrong.

The android issue

If you type "fractal" in your Android phone, you will get a list of application. One of them, the second in the list, is Fractoid: a fantastic GPL application for your android phone.

Pick the free app from this list (if you're a psychic)

You can change formula, use the fractal as background, and so on. The first one in the list, Fractal Explorer, is a nice enough application for which you will never ever see the source code. What's worse, I have no way to filter out the non-free applications.

The Ubuntu issue (!)

if you then go to your trusted Ubuntu computer, and run the Ubuntu Software Center, things aren't much better (!). I am not especially bothered by the fact that they try and sell you applications: I believe that people should have the freedom to install proprietary software if they wish to. Not a good idea, but still. What I see, however, is worse:

  1. I don't trust that "free". I know that VLC is free, for example; but what about "Stellarium"? I have never heard of it. I checked it: yes, it is indeed "open source" (OK, fine). What about the others?

  2. I have no way of paying for a GPL piece of software. I use VLC a lot, every day. I would love to donate $3 to the developers, for the privilege of using it. I don't think I am alone

Can you spot the free app here?

=IMG=ubuntusoftwarecentre.png=Is free really free here?=

Clicking on the section "Games" in the Software Center will simply list a bunch of programs -- and yes, some of them are anything but free.

Maybe I have access to proprietary software because I enabled the "Multiverse" repository. But, that's the same repository I need to enable in order to have access to much-needed multimedia codecs (not necessarily proprietary stuff, but definitely surrounded by legal issues).

Where is the really free stuff?

I can understand (but not forgive) Google for not providing a meaningful filter for their Android market. But I am totally baffled by Canonical.

Are we really approaching a world where "free" could mean "under a free license", or "proprietary and crippled in terms of features", or "proprietary but ad-supported"? Really?

Main image courtesy of and


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