A Linux Bun in HP’s Oven; Firefox and the EULA Hounds

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the Linux community must be doing something right. Rumors abounded throughout the blogosphere last week that HP may be working on its own version of our favorite operating system.

Specifically, employees within HP’s PC division are working on a mass-market operating system that is based on Linux but easier to use, according to sources cited by BusinessWeek.

Could there possibly exist a topic more likely to fire up the Linux blogs? Hard to imagine.

‘Designed to be Difficult’

“It occurs to me that they aren’t going to do this because they love Linux,” wrote g0dsp33d on Slashdot, where some 300 comments had appeared by Friday. “They would do it to make money, and I’m willing to bet that if they make their own version it would be designed to be difficult to move to other systems. They won’t want to develop something at any expense and have someone else undercut their prices.”

On the other hand, “If HP makes a decent version of Linux for their computers, even if it has system locks, it could be an important introduction into the OS for many new users,” countered Narpak. “A growth in the amount of users running Linux, or derivations thereof, could be good for Linux in general. Wider use = wider support. Not to mention that it could help to make porting games for Linux more lucrative.”

What would another version mean for Linux or free software in general? LinuxInsider couldn’t resist taking a small poll of opinions.

‘I Love Competition’

“I love competition — the more choices users have in general, the better!” Kevin Dean, a blogger on Monochrome Mentality, told LinuxInsider.

“I personally think HP could find much more inventive ways to do it than try yet again to perfect the ‘perfect desktop Linux distro,’ but that’s not my call,” he added.

“If HP listens to their customers and delivers what they need, I think that’s great,” Dean said.

“Hopefully they’ll make their improvements available to the larger FOSS community, but they’ve got a mixed record there” with regard to open source printer drivers, “zero support for FOSS with their LightScribe technology, and laptops that are hit and miss on Linux,” he asserted.

An even darker view: “I guess everyone needs to try having their own distro once before they realize how much work it is,” Montreal-based consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider. “They never learn any other way.”

The EULA Bug

Speaking of doing it the hard way, a virtual firestorm of controversy erupted in the blogosphere when reports emerged that Mozilla is insisting on the inclusion of an end-user license agreement (EULA) for copies of Firefox that are packaged with new versions of Canonical’s Ubuntu.

The issue was reported as Bug #269656 in Canonical’s Launchpad Bugs report, referring to the latest Intrepid Ibex version of Ubuntu.

Pagefuls of comments ensued there and elsewhere, including

“Mozilla Corp asked that this be added in order for us to continue to call the browser Firefox,” Mark Shuttleworth himself explained in the Launchpad comments. “Since Firefox is their trademark, which we intend to respect, we have the choice of working with Mozilla to meet their requirements, or switching to an unbranded browser.”

‘It’s Unfortunate’

Having a good brand on a free software project is a best practice, and that means having trademark guidelines, Shuttleworth asserted.

“That said, I would not consider an EULA as a best practice,” he added. “It’s unfortunate that Mozilla feels this is absolutely necessary, but they do, and none of us are in a position to be experts about the legal constraints which Mozilla feels apply to them.”

An unbranded package, called “abrowser,” is also available, Shuttleworth added, and other commenters mentioned the availability of Iceweasel.

“I don’t have a problem agreeing that Mozilla (or any other Linux/Freesoftware developer/distributor) own the logos and other branding items, and I can’t see why anyone else other than a freeloader would,” wrote tracyanne on LXer.

‘Irrelevant and Frightening’

On the other hand, “Many parts of this EULA seem irrelevant and unnecessarily frightening,” wrote William Grant in a comment on the Launchpad report. “Why was such a change not brought up and discussed on ubuntu-devel before it was made? This keeping of the community in the dark is highly concerning.”

Should the Linux community as a whole be up in arms? Once again, we took to the streets to gather some more opinions.

“Personally, I think the Firefox EULA thing is, on the whole, a neutral thing for the concept of free software — and for the implementation of Linux,” Slashdot blogger Joe Jay Bee told LinuxInsider. However, it “shows a little bit of a disregard for many of the things users consider important, and also that the people who have most of the mindshare within the movement, in general, have disastrously different priorities from the normal users distros like Ubuntu are meant to serve.”

The controversy has “made it look like the FOSS community just wants to wage quixotic campaigns against things like EULAs — which are themselves only as onerous as the terms within them, and from what I can tell, Canonical’s Firefox one isn’t bad at all — rather than expending effort on things that actually matter to users,” he said.

“Most desktop users — the target of Ubuntu — don’t care about EULAs whatsoever. It doesn’t matter to them, and Linux proponents would do well to remember that. … To carry on ranting about an issue that is, to most people, meaningless simply isolates them,” added Bee.

Who Cares?

Similarly, “I really don’t think that the majority of users will care much about a one-time EULA popping up when Firefox is first opened,” agreed Adam Kane, a blogger on Foogazi.

However, “it’s very important to note the significance of the fact that Ubuntu is willing to stand up and say that making a user click a license agreement upon first launch of an application, in a freely distributed operating system, is not best practice,” Kane told LinuxInsider.

“In all reality, though, the majority of the Ubuntu users will most likely click the EULA accept button and completely forget about it,” he predicted. “Overall, it’s a poor decision by Firefox to not comply, and come to a different agreement with Ubuntu on how the EULA should be presented to the user.”

The EULA requirement seems to go against the spirit of open source, but “at the same time, I’m not sure it matters, practically,” Dean said. “Open source software is open source, regardless of how that license is displayed. One could even argue that being open source is one of Firefox’s strengths, and that there’s no better way to hit on that than displaying an open source license.”

‘Hoping and Praying’

That said, “I don’t really buy the argument,” Dean added. “EULAs reek of legalese, and most people simply don’t care.”

Firefox is “bloated, clunky, poorly integrated and frequently buggy,” but it’s also “damn flexible,” asserted Dean, who says he uses the browser simply for its plug-ins.

“I’ve been hoping and praying that some alternative would arise that could leverage the myriad plug-ins and displace Firefox — strong brand be damned! — and deliver me from browser hell,” he said. “If an open source project managed to do this with the Chromium base and principles, it would be absolutely awesome. Then, distributors like Debian and Ubuntu and Red Hat could afford to be picky and just dump any browser project that skirted the open source rules.”

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