Philosophy and Fancy

There are no rules about what you can and can't do when you create your own Linux distro, but if you step back from the trees, the forest starts to emerge.

Free and open-source software isn't just a way of computing, it's a way of life, right? Or, is it just a way to get cool free stuff? Or, is it the ultimate insurance against totalitarian government, corporatist/mercantilist rule? Or, maybe it's a toolkit that forms a common cultural substrate from which enterprises are built? Maybe not—I'm confused.

Actually, this kind of confusion isn't unusual for newcomers to the open-source space. Why in the hell would people release their software for free in the first place? Why would anyone want to use open-source software? What bearing do any of these questions have on choosing a distro? And, by the way, why do some distros strip the logo from Firefox or not include the ability to play DVDs or Internet videos?

Sometimes in life, philosophy dictates reality rather than vice versa, and one of the areas where this is at least partly the case is in the packaging, design and distribution of free and/or open-source operating systems.

What became the Open Source movement was born out of sixties and seventies radicalism, articulated by far-left quasi-Marxist anarchists like Richard Stallman, objectivist idealists like Eric Raymond, and colorful characters elsewhere along the political/philosophical spectrum. The idealism and the tensions that arose in that early hacking culture have gone on to infect the community at large and to affect the business models of some of the largest tech companies in the world. Even when the philosophy hasn't, the amount of free software that's simply lying around has turned into the DNA of much of the modern computing universe (Microsoft, for example, relies heavily on BSD code for its Windows Networking stack). Linux—perhaps partly because of the stated ideological neutrality of inventor Linus Torvalds and partly because of its broader popularity—can look like little more than a battleground for the different philosophical factions that gave birth to a number of major distributions. Some people even argue very loudly about whether the operating system we all love is Linux or GNU/Linux (speaking of which, those of you in the Stallman camp might want to start writing that hate mail now).

It's hard to believe in this era of supposedly mindless consumerism that something as arcane as a philosophy can impact how your computer functions, but there you go. There are actually a few different arenas in which philosophy plays a major role in the design of Linux distributions—some of them coming out of the tensions outlined above, and some of them out of more practical kinds of paradigmatic considerations. To understand why Linux distributions are put together the way they are, it helps to understand these axes.

Major Differences in Philosophy

These differences in philosophy directly impact distribution design decisions, leading to three major species of Linux distribution.

The first species is the free distribution, and it follows the philosophy laid out by Stallman and his camp. This distribution accepts no patent-encumbered or commercial software, and it might not include hybrid software released under licenses like the LGPL or the Mozilla Public License. The Free Software movement initially arose in the 1970s and 1980s in the hacker culture, when people who owned computers were almost exclusively programmers and engineers. As commercial software came in with the dawn of personal computing, Stallman and his cohorts became concerned with their rights as users (a term which used to mean a lot more than it does now) and as programmers, so they founded the GNU Project, which eventually aimed to put together an entirely free (as in speech and as in beer) operating system. The GNU philosophy, articulated by the nonprofit Free Software Foundation and eventually embodied in the GNU General Public License, very cleverly uses copyright to subvert centralized control of information.

Free distributions are sometimes so devoted to the free software model that they will strip the trademarked artwork from, for example, Firefox, and substitute it for something more generic, in order to avoid having to deal with trademark legalities or other issues that might complicate the licensing of the distribution as a whole. Fedora Core and Slackware are prime examples of distros that follow this philosophy.

The second species is the commercial distribution, much maligned by the first camp. This sort of distribution takes advantage of the fact that the GNU GPL allows for commercial packaging (so long as the source code also is made available) and leveraging of GNU software together with various commercial and quasi-commercial programs to create a distribution that attempts to perform at the level of competing commercial operating systems and tends to aim for the same space. These often will have bundled proprietary tools, or a proprietary overlay with the system management tools, and generally will be licensed under a catchall proprietary license with a note that much of the included software is GPL, LGPL or another free license, but that the proprietary tools and software are not covered by conventional open-source thinking. Thus, caution is warranted when modifying or redistributing the operating system. SUSE is a currently viable commercial distro.

The third major species is the hybrid distribution, and its approach tends to be very pragmatic rather than ideologically slanted either toward the Free Software movement or toward commercial operating systems. These are the distributions that slant heavily in favor of free/open-source software, but still include (either bundled or via easily downloaded add-ons) proprietary fonts, codecs and other goodies of a legally murky nature (such as DVD ripping and decryption software) that often are not included in or available for commercial distributions short of compiling them oneself. This type of distribution is a recent arrival on the scene. Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, distros tended to be packaged either as commercial software or as free software + support, and sold in software boxes in computer shops. The burst of the dot-com bubble and the rise of widespread broadband, coupled with the legal problems caused by the DMCA, created a demand for distributions that delivered the benefits of free software with the functionality of commercial software, all while insulating distributors from the legal problems associated with patent infringement or enabling copyright circumvention. As a result, this last variety has become the most popular, although the other two species definitely are still around. Mandriva and Ubuntu both fall solidly in this category.