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Withholding the Four Freedoms

Having downsized my rather over-enthusiastic computer collection (thanks, eBay!), I was down to one computer. Unfortunately, as a rather long in the tooth MacBook Air, it’s no longer suited to my needs and neither is it upgradeable. I got all of the files I care about off of its disk and set out to look for a replacement, meanwhile setting the MacBook aside to one day wipe its e4fs storage and re-install Mac OS X/OS X/macOS/whatever we call it this week.

I chose the sort of spec computer I wanted, then carefully researched various vendors to see what components they used and whether there was reported driver support in the Linux kernel. Eventually, dude, I got a Dell. The Alienware 15 R3 is made of bits that are supported in Linux, with the most complex piece being that the network adapter requires binary firmware. The manufacturer includes links to the firmware blobs on their website though, so this can’t be hard…can it?

I fell straight to running the Debian Jessie installer, put the firmware blobs in place, and…the wi-fi isn’t detected. Oh well, it’s quite an old kernel, maybe I could switch to Testing? No, that doesn’t boot at all: some error about not getting valid cache information from the SSD. Neither does the Ubuntu 16.10 kernel boot, for the same reason. 16.04 boots just fine, and it detects the wireless and connects to the network…and then the installer crashes.

One thing I’m not looking forward to is the onslaught of replies to this post from people who want to help, but ultimately won’t help. “You should try Arch Linux, I expect that works,” or “maybe you’ll have better luck with Fedora.” Why do you expect that? What specific knowledge about my problem makes you think that your specific choice of distribution will work better? And why can’t I just take that knowledge and apply it to Debian, or Ubuntu? They’re just distributions, they’re all made of the same bits.

I admit, I’m frustrated. I want to be a proud advocate for Free Software and for totally free computing environments, but being unable to even run some of the flagship software makes me reticent to recommend it to others. I was having these problems back in 2001, and I’m having these problems now. And it’s not like I’m incompetent when it comes to *nix administration or to Linux driver configuration, and nor did I just buy the prettiest computer I could find and hope that it would work, I _did my research_. I spent hours making sure that there were drivers for the various components in this system, reading reviews, QA forum posts, and kernel mailing list messages. Unfortunately my willingness to screw about with configuring my computer just so that I can use it has waned over the last couple of decades, faster than the necessity to screw about with it has decreased.

For the moment, I’m running Windows 10 as a hardware abstraction layer, and have a full-screen VirtualBox VM to do my work in. It works, it makes me die a little inside but it works. But I’m worried that for all the crowing that open source is eating the world, it’s still too hard to jump in, even for a diligent and experienced user. Until we can give someone a computer that they turn on and start working in, and that runs free software, this will all remain the preserve of professionals and committed hobbyists. The Four Freedoms will effectively be restricted to those in the know and with time to dedicate to obtaining them: all users are equal, but some are more equal than others.

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