‘Free’ must not mean ‘cheap’

I am about to, when the disk arrives, install Microsoft Windows on a desktop system.

This is a system we bought a few months ago for my mother because she didn’t understand that Windows was her problem. She quickly ran into problems and so after considerable effort, I managed to get Linux on it. Unfortunately, I completely broke Windows in the process—it wouldn’t boot.

Now, an upgrade broke X—needed for graphical displays—and so I began casting around for another Linux distribution. But I have not been able to get any of them—even the one I had previously installed—to boot on this system following installation. Every one I have tried has claimed to have solved the UEFI problem.

UEFI is a new boot system that replaces the traditional BIOS. It accompanies an improved disk partitioning scheme and is intended to ensure that malware does not get booted in place of an operating system kernel. It’s not actually that bad an idea. But a number of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) people smelled a rat, that this development was intended to exclude their operating systems—like Linux—from being run on new systems.[1]

As near as I can tell, the problem is not the kernel, but rather that the distribution installation programs fail to detect when they are running on a UEFI system. They fail to take the necessary steps—or prompt the user to take the necessary steps—to properly install the bootloader on a UEFI system. And these steps are exceedingly arcane, involving the contents of a special EFI partition which must be properly set up. This is not, I repeat, not a case of the evil empire (Microsoft) locking users out of booting free software; I am, in fact, in the interim, running Linux Mint 13 off a “live” CD-ROM on this system.

There are also lots of programs out there that claim to ‘fix’ a broken UEFI boot. None of them even properly detect that the system is UEFI. (Hint: if the disk has a GPT partition scheme, it’s probably UEFI, and this should be the first, most basic thing to check for.)

Going through the distributions, it was astonishing how many of them are mere repackagings. Even the installation programs look functionally very much alike—they’ve been styled differently, but they go through the exact same steps in exactly the same way.

There is something important to understand about FOSS. While the software is freely available, it has, in the over ten years I’ve been using it, generally been of higher quality than proprietary software. I will wind up, by various means, employing it on what will be a Windows system. People have, throughout my experience, produced such software to “scratch an itch,” that is, to solve problems that turned out to be similar problems to those other people encountered, in cooperation with those people—at least those of them who are programmers—that would be widely tested and subject to wide scrutiny for bugs.

It remains a principal argument for open source security software that with so many people able to examine the source code, it is impossible to hide ‘back doors’ in the code, such as that suspected with Skype VOIP software.[2] and because so many people can work on it—and check each others’ work—that the end result is considerably more robust than can be produced in a closed shop.

But something else has appeared with look-alike Linux distributions. Simply replicating existing packaging systems does not “scratch an itch.” Rather, it serves merely to enhance the “producer’s” claim to technical skill—and there is some skill involved, even in just changing the colors and the artwork—and thus to enhance her or his prospects in the job market. This isn’t particularly harmful in itself.

But when all of these “producers” claim to have solved the problem of installing on UEFI systems—and they haven’t—what they are really doing is reproducing a failure, and using that failure to get jobs. This furthers a culture—already widespread within our society—of rewarding failure.[3] And it gives FOSS a bad reputation, particularly as people try Linux on their shiny new systems, only to discover they won’t boot.

  1. [1]Josh Gay, “Will your computer’s ‘Secure Boot’ turn out to be ‘Restricted Boot’?” Free Software Foundation October 12, 2011, http://www.fsf.org/campaigns/secure-boot-vs-restricted-boot
  2. [2]John Leyden, “Austrian official fuels Skype backdoor rumours,” Register, July 25, 2008, http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/07/25/skype_backdoor_rumours/
  3. [3]Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (New York: Crown, 2012).

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