The HeliOS Project is now.....

The HeliOS Project is now.....
Same mission, same folks...just a different name

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

When "Free" Can Suck.

We were fortunate enough to have a donated space in the expo hall at Texas Linux Fest this year. +Carolyn Hulsey who is one of our Directors, manned the Reglue booth for us on Friday.  She jokingly asked if I wanted her to be our "booth babe" this year.  She was in deed, all of that.

What was truly humbling was the number of people that recognized us without introduction.  When someone approached, I stood and extended my hand in greeting.  More often than I would have thought, the person shook my hand and told me, "I know who you are."

Wow....just wow.

It was one of these people that later pursued a 3 day email discussion with me on Free As In Beer software. And yeah...we all know the benefits.  But what of the negatives?

Linux distributions.  His "take"?

"Anyone paying for a Linux distribution is putting their money down the drain.  What they should be doing is putting that money into the hands of a free distro developer so (s)he can make their distribution better".

My long-time friend and mentor, +Carla Schroder  recently had a piece published at  The article asked a good question concerning Linux distros and she based her article on the different answers to the question.....

"Where are they now?"

These distros highlighted had a major impact on The HeliOS Project and later, upon Reglue. Mepis and Libranet.

When I first started The HeliOS Project, I was using Librenet on my personal computer.  Libranet had a per-user licensing agreement in order to make the effort pay and a single user license was for 69.00 If I remember correctly.  Jon Danzig and I worked out a multiple licensing agreement that we could both live with. The fact is, Jon almost gave those licenses away because he believed in what we were doing.  Jon's untimely death in 2005 eventually resulted in the Libranet venture striking their tents and moving on.

I consider Libranet as the first extremely easy Linux distro for the masses.  However, we were left with no other choice but to change our flagship distro.

Mepis Linux worked amazingly well for us. We used Mepis on all of our outgoing computers until 2010.  We put Mepis Linux on over 200 computers during Lynn Bender's Linux Against Poverty event in 2010.


Many of those systems are still in use today.  Three and a half months ago, we were contacted that one of our Reglue system's was no longer working.  A quick glance at the boot screen told the whole story.

It was Mepis 8 still running that computer, with KDE 3.5 working in all it's splendor. The problem was an aging Nvidia card/driver and some serious dirt and dust within the machine.  We replaced the computer with a decent dual core and our current Mint KDE LTS. Everyone is again happy. At least for another 4-5 years.

That Mepis system ran from 2010 until the late winter of 2014 without one major problem.

The three day email discussion I mentioned above was ignited by our difference of opinion pertaining to the "Free as in Beer" culture and mindset that encompasses most of the Linuxsphere.

His thoughts on the matter?  "Charging for a Linux distro or even software being developed for Linux is obscene".  Linux and Free Open Source Software should never have a price tag. Also, it should never have proprietary drivers and apps within.


We agreed to disagree.  My job is to help disadvantaged kids get a functional and useful computer into their home. I can't very well set a new computer up in a kid's home and then give him a long list of things he cannot do with it.

"I'm sorry there kiddo.  You can't watch a lot of videos or use your school's website because they depends on Flash.  I'm also sorry that you can't play on or use some of your apps. Java doesn't work on your computer. But hey...ain't using Linux great anyway?  Make sure to tell all your friends how great Linux is."

Google's act of stripping Java support from Chrome severely cripples that browser.  What they intend to replace it with still remains to be seen.  Is Chrome following Apples lead in refusing to include Flash?  At first blush, it would certainly seem so.

At this time, it's unclear to me how Chrome merits any consideration as Reglue's daily driver on the information highway.

And I'm sure someone wants to mention Iced Tea and other open source attempts to produce replacements for Flash and Java.  Yeah, they work...sometimes.  My experience is that they fail at the exact time and place I need them to work.

As much as I agree in principle with the FOSS doctrine, that philosophy
cannot stand the full weight of day-to-day pragmatism without the roof falling in. The inclusion of Flash and Java into the Linuxphere is a necessary evil for many of us.

We've enjoyed success in placing Reglue machines, but some think we've compromised the Free Open Source Software principles to do so.  Really...?  Compromised principles? I'm not here to start a religious war nor am I here to place my allegiance in any particular camp. What I am here for is to express my opinion on what works best for the majority of most everyone.

Most everyone that uses a computer anyway.

Sometimes, in the Linux/Free Software world, things we thought would be here forever can go away quickly...leaving everyone in a state of confusion and surprise. The relatively recent demise of SolusOS and Fuduntu come immediately to mind.

As an aside, I wonder how my argumentative friend would feel if he donated money to these distros.

" What they should be doing is putting that money into the hands of a free distro developer so (s)he can make their distribution better"

Both were great developers but did any donations to those projects stop them from being canceled? So as many people donated to either one, in the end it didn't make a whit of difference. They are gone and seemingly never to return.

But wait...Let's talk about that little Google Chrome maneuver (mentioned above) that caught many of us by surprise last May. And in no way could it be described as anywhere near a pleasant surprise.

When I updated to the release of Chrome I figured it was business as usual.  I rarely review the release notes unless I need to see if a certain feature is now supported.

Maybe I should be checking for features that have had their guts ripped out.

While it was publicly announced, many of us didn't get the memo. Google dropped all Flash support in Chrome. It's their plan to make Chrome faster and more secure.  Really?

One of the reasons I left Firefox for Chrome was for its built-in support for Java/Flash.  Why these two are intertwined I have no clue.  Regardless, those websites that worked previously with Chrome no longer simply said that the Java plugin was missing and it offered a link to download and install it.

I remember thinking to myself, "Oh crap...this can't be good".

And it wasn't.  A short search for some answers came quickly:

Java plug-in missing after upgrade to 35.0.1916.114 (Linux)Java plug-in missing after upgrade to 35.0.1916.114 (Linux)

 Two years ago, Reglue made Chrome the default browser in our default distro simply because Java (and many Flash) woes in Linux were dispatched quickly by using it.  Ever-increasing difficulty with Flash and Java in Firefox made the switch seem sensible.  

Now, that just ain't so.  Google will do what Google will do but steamroller changes like this is going too far, even for Google.  We've found our way back to Firefox and it feels like putting on an an old pair of comfortable jeans. 

It just feels right.

There is a passionate discussion among devepers concerning this "problem".
The plugin wasn't was blocked.  Here, you can read for yourself the anger among those who develop for Chrome. Potentially millions of users woke up to find that their Chrome browser no longer supports Java.  It doesn't support Java?  Then for many of us, Chrome is practically useless.

My point is that we shouldn't need to use multiple browsers for differing tasks.  But that comes full circle to my point. In this instance and many others in the Free Software world...This a case of when free can suck.  

While I am sure there are a number of cases where we could site the same sort of thing in commercial products, I don't think any stockholder or board of directors would support a main feature being gutted from their product. Not without replacing it with something better.  It appears that Google doesn't have any such compunction.

As user edtoml points out in the above-mentioned link, 

"Getting rid of a 'bad' API can be a good thing.  Not converting critical plugins is bad verging on evil".

Of course, that depends.  If you are trying to forcibly guide internet applications into certain directions...then this is the course Google should be taking. Microsoft made a living out of it.  Don't get me wrong.  Flash and Java suck and they need to die by fire, but killing it off before alternatives exist is nasty business.  

And of course, that brings us again to something we, as Google users have come to understand.

Google is fastly becoming our Internet overlords if they aren't already. Gmail and Chrome are not Google products...we are the products.  We are the marketable items. Gmail and Chrome are simply the useful playgrounds given to us in order for them to collect our data.  Why does the choice between a red pill and a blue pill come to mind?  

So as always, the devil is in the details.  Am I ready to give up my Gmail account and Chrome browser?  

Gmail no, Chrome, yes. I may even revisit Opera.  But I am dialed in by a factor of 10, looking for alternatives that can give me the same features without compromising in ease of use.  But let there be no doubt.  If there ever should be such a product to come down the pipe that replaces the Google offering, I will certainly use it.

And I will most certainly pay for it if necessary.

All-righty then...



Verdia13 said...

Hi Ken
Have a look at this browser based on Open Source Chromium browser

Note particularly down the page a bit for the comments on flash support. I have been using Maxthon for a couple of months now.
Vern [Christchurch NZ]

Bob Robertson said...

Trying to say that charging for a service is wrong is absurd. There is no gun to his head to pay for what he does not want, unlike the state.

Voluntary interactions often include trade of value for value. To bemoan that is to be completely blind to what "voluntary" means.

Don't like it? Don't do it. Move on, nothing to see here.

Niki Kovacs said...

Greetings from an ex-Libranet user from South France. I've been using this great distro back in 2003 and 2004, and even wrote a review for the french paper magazine Linux Pratique.

Currently a significant part of my job is migrating desktops from Windows to Linux. My clients really don't care what's under the hood. What they do care about is that everything JustWorks(tm) and that they have a functional desktop with one nicely integrated application per task. Until recently I've developed my own Slackware-based desktop with loads of extra packages such as codecs, fonts, extra applications, etc. More recently I'm using a heavily modded Elementary OS, and on older PC's, I go for a mix of minimal Ubuntu (installed with the Server CD) and the MATE desktop on top of it. I'm relying on Firefox for web browsing. No Chrome here. Everything works fine.

CFWhitman said...

Chrome has not dispensed with Flash. The same Flash player that has been included with Chrome for quite some time is still there. What Chrome has dispensed with is the NPAPI protocol. That is, they've stopped supporting Netscape plugins in favor of Pepper plugins only (they were supporting both).

The reason Java is gone is because at this point there is no PPAPI Java plugin. The Java plugin was never a part of Chrome anyway. Chrome just used the same Java plugin that Firefox uses. In order for Java support for Chrome (or Chromium) to be restored, a Pepper plugin version of Java will have to be released (or NPAPI support will have to be restore, or perhaps, an add-on could be developed).

Now we are stuck in the disagreeable situation where in order to get an up to date version of Flash (14.x), we need to use a browser that supports Pepper, like Chrome or Chromium, but to get Java we need a browser that supports Netscape, which Chrome and Chromium no longer do.

It might be useful if Firefox would start to support Pepper (though we would still have to download the Pepper Flash plugin from Google, since they develop it). I don't see Google readily restoring NPAPI support. Until then we can use Firefox and get Flash version 12.x. Of course, a PPAPI version of Java may be released, but I don't want to have to use Chrome or Chromium anyway. I prefer to use a Mozilla based browser most of the time.

CFWhitman said...

One correction and a couple of additions to my previous post:

The version of Flash that we are left with as an NPAPI Linux plugin is 11.2.x not 12.x.

I have looked further into this issue and discovered Mozilla's plan to deal with this issue.

Mozilla don't want to support Pepper because it yet another alternate implementation of features that they feel should be (and to a great extent are) available as HTML standards. Mozilla already support a legacy implementation, NPAPI, and they want any transition to be straight to HTML standards.

In the spirit of this, they are developing their own Flash Player as part of Firefox, called Shumway. I had heard of Shumway, but was not aware of its exact purpose. It is Mozilla's plan to have Shumway working well by the time support for Flash 11.2.x ends. Until then, they don't expect there to be much content that won't work reasonably well with Flash 11.2.x.

I have also discovered that there is an NPAPI wrapper for the Pepper Flash plugin which works, with some issues still, called Fresh Player Plugin.

Another possible solution to a requirement for a newer version of Flash that I was familiar with already is to use Pipelight to run Windows NPAPI plugins under Linux. I sometimes use Piplelight to run Microsoft's Silverlight plugin on Linux.

Larry the Open Source Guy said...

Good post, Ken. If I had a dollar for every time I've crossed swords with Free Software "purists" over usability, I'd be a rich man. The point, well made, is that we need things like Flash and Java until things like Gnash and IcedTea become viable alternatives, and it shouldn't even have to be discussed.

Sum Yung Gai said...

The problem isn't Firefox. Rather, the problem is the dependence that so many (poorly written) apps have on proprietary plugins like Sun/Oracle Java and Adobe Flash. I don't see the need for this proprietary "Pepper" thingy that Google and Adobe seem to like. Had we the source code to Adobe Flash, and if people would program Java to the Classpath standards instead of Oracle-specific features, we'd be OK. But we don't, and they don't, so we're in this situation.

OK, great, we know the problem. The long-term fix is to move to HTML5 standards and non-patent-encumbered formats.

Now, what do we do about it in the *short* term, i. e. today?

I would say, you're doing the right thing by going back to Firefox. On my Ubuntu system, both Flash and Java work with Firefox (they're just an "apt-get" away). Things work, people are happy with their systems, and life is good.


Raphael Sanches said...

Hi Ken... about the discussion with the guy you mentioned... " should never have proprietary drivers and apps within...", I believe he, and many people do, is mistaking what being FOSS means!.
What makes a Linux Distro FOSS is not the fact that comes or not with 3rd party proprietary code or not, is the fact that you have the freedom to remove that code from the system if you want!
The magical word is OPEN!... no matter if it's free or not, full of 3rd party apps or not, that magical word is the key to enter the system and do as you please!... : )

John Morris said...

To those who refuse to pay money to a Linux distro developer I would only ask them to open their eyes.

Does RedHat contribute to general Linux development? A visit to's regular feature showing who is contributing the most patchsets AND the most lines of code usually has Redhat at or near the top. They maintain GCC. They, love or hate it, drive Gnome development even though they currently derive little income from desktop/workstation sales. They are driving the (insane IMHO) drive to systemd, they push a lot of large install, cloud and cluster work. All of it under 100% RMS pure licenses.

Ubuntu is more mixed in their contributions but then they are a lot SMALLER.

Bottom line, buying from a distro IS funding Free Software development. Ok, you might get a little more bang for your buck buying manuals from the FSF or just donating, but on the other hand, RH does actually provide direct services in exchange for your cash. And on the gripping hand, donating a few bux to Debian can never be a bad idea since even RedHat ends up with code developed there, although not as fast as it ends up in Ubuntu.

Everybody is scratching their own itches and so long as the code is Free Software it is all good for everybody. So less griping and moaning about somebody doing business with somebody you aren't.

As to Chrome, reality check time. Chromium is an open source browser, Chrome is 100% closed. It IS commercial software. But Google being Google they give it away like all their other products because it is tied to the Googlesphere.

K. Darien Freeheart said...

Many years ago, in a private discussion with Theo DeRaadt, he said something to me that would ultimately change my view on Free Software. To paraphrase - "Ultimately, user freedom will be won or lost at the standard level, and not at the code level."

At the time, I was a Freetard, and my pet project was pulling out the non-free components in Xorg for gNewSense. And then shaking my fist angrily at Debian for not doing the same 4 years ago (at the time).

Today, I have Ubuntu on my systems, and I'm currently browsing the the out of date, proprietary Flash plugin from Adobe? Why? Because I like laughing at Flash videos.

Ultimately, computers are tools and should work for users. If that computer owner's defition of "work" is "play Flash videos" then installing Flash should be easy for that user.

The battle for user freedom won't happen by yelling at users about installing Flash. It will be won by creating alternative video sharing sites that aren't locked into proprietary technology so that they'll never have to install Flash to see their videos. It will be won by leveraging open standards in the browser to replace things that are currently easily snipped from the web, but require Java.

In the meantime, run what works for you. That's freedom, ain't it?

Scott Furry said...

link -

Pale Moon is a re-spin of the firefox browser. I switched to it after the fiasco that was FF29/30. Not looking back... May this avenue might be suitable for you?

Anonymous said...

I'm still using version 34.something so Java still works. Recently, Firefox did exactly that: as soon as the installed version was known to be vulnerable, the plugin was disabled automatically. I was then "forced" to update from Oracle, since they had the great idea of not letting distributions automatically provide updates for it. Being security conscious, I actually support how FF works -- and like other people, I adopt a pragmatic view of using certain proprietary things until free ones are ready. Considering the recent Oracle versus Google bickering, isn't the current situation a somewhat unavoidable consequence of a deranged system? Maybe Google should use an approach similar to FF and allow the "unblocking" of the plugin. In my case, not having that option will mean no more banking with Chrome. Alas, Chromium is not that light. I have machines with 2GB RAM and FF starts faster, though Chromium is somewhat more fluid for -- ironically -- Flash content... though I like Google, FF seems to me a safer bet regarding Freedom in the long term. Maybe it's time to check other new browsers regarding that acid test...
This situation is akin to the Nvidia one, with proprietary drives being better... and look what Linus had to do. My opinion is that, unless we have specific reasons to do it, we should choose Freedom over speed or features. That's why I currently avoid Nvidia, use Chromium only as backup and even want to trade my Android phone for a Firefox OS or Ubuntu Touch asap.

Alger Nonymous

Jim Simpson said...

Hey, Ken,

Even Stallman says that it is okay to charge for programs as you are supporting the programmer.


Shaun Marolf said...

I think it should be mentioned that the Java support issue in Chrome had more to do with Oracle than Google. The Java licensing issues created by Oracle are quickly becoming a nightmare. They haven't gone after OpenJava yet but I'm fairly certain that's only because they are looking at the legal options. Google won the lawsuit over the version of Java they use in Android for apps, but Oracle no longer allows anyone to distribute their version of Java with any OS which is why all Linux ditros no longer include and use OpenJava instead.

Honestly Java is a security nightmare. There are better tools for building and running online programs that are for more open.

Jose_X said...

Like Sum Yung Gai said, HTML 5 is the new std. Youtube is now in html 5 if you don't have flash (at least a chunk of it is). It has worked for me. Google video creation tools probably use html5. And html5 can do a lot more than what most videos are: a repeat of picture frames with an ounce of interactivity. The actual controls (stop start etc) were coded by google into html5 probably long ago.