31 May 2011

What is the sense of gNewSense?

Linux is famous for its freedom. Freedom is in its blood, to be precise - in its license.
There are 2 types of free things which are usually considered:
  1. Free as beer. Linux OS costs you nothing to license.
  2. Free as freedom. Linux OS can be modified by yourself any way you like.
Most distros (apart from chosen few who violate first type) satisfy both criteria. With small exception. There are too many things around us which are covered by non-free (of second type) license. Most famous examples are MP3 decoder and hardware firmware.
How can free lover Tux live with these restrictions? Different teams of developers solve the issue different ways. Some of them include all the necessary stuff into distro, adding necessary legal notes (e.g.Linux Mint). Others split free and non-free software between repositories which user is free to connect to (e.g.Debian). Third type tries to avoid non-free software as a class. These puristic distros may be very interesting.
Today I will tell you about one of them: gNewSense. It is supported by Free Software Foundation as one of few who satisfies strict restriction to use only really free (as freedom) components.
Latest version of gNewSense was released in September 2009 and has index 2.3. It weights just above 600 Mb, which makes it possible to use on either CD or USB.
Let's try both options.

First of all, I tried Unetbootin. This powerful tool has gNewSense as option in the menu. I had image already downloaded, so only had to "burn" it to USB stick. Task was complete successfully, but on reboot I could only see few seconds of splash screen with further command line invitation. In other words, Unetbootin failed the task.
Next option was dd command. It works in some cases where Unetbootin is useless. Unfortunately, this time I had even less success with this method. USB stick was not bootable at all.
Actually, official wiki of gNewSense contains description of method to create bootable USB drive with this distro. But this method is not as simple as you may think. Probably that was done intentionally to avoid system usage by people who are not familiar enough with Linux. I found more similar things in gNewSense, but more about it later.
After quick look on the method of USB stick creation which I linked above, I dropped the idea. It is much easier to burn CD image that follow lengthy instruction if they both reach same point.
CD image was burnt by K3B under Kubuntu 11.04 onto CD-RW disk. I was ready to set off to another adventure. Are you ready now? Fasten your seat belts!
Booting gNewSense from CD-RW was done without any issue. Once booted, I got to very familiar interface. It is the interface of Debian which I saw right after the installation.
What is included into it? Almost the same applications:

  • Epiphany is the only browser
  • Transmission is the default torrent client
  • OpenOffice with version 2.4 and still logo of Sun (not Oracle) on it.
  • Rythmbox is default MP3 player.
  • Brasero is default disk burning utility.

I will not continue the list. If you ever saw the Debian (GNOME) installation, you could see almost the same.
All the partitions were recognised and mounted successfully under gNewSense. Russian characters in filenames were shown correctly even on NTFS partition. No issues here.
I tried to play MP3 files which are stored on my local drive. Of course, MP3 files were not supported out of the box by gNewSense. The reason is very clear: MP3 decoder is not free software, instead it is covered by special license. Error message which I got at Rythmbox asked me to search for necessary software.
Actually I was not much interested in the software bundled with gNewSense. I was more interested in the WiFi connection of my Broadcom 4311 network card. Of course, it was recognised in lspci. But of course driver (firmware) was not included into gNewSense. Log in dmesg told me that solution to my problem could be found on the official page of gNewSense web site dedicated to Wireless cards.
Desktop in gNewSense
Yes, there is a solution. It is very simple: download source code and compile firmware itself. First of all, I was quite surprised that my WiFi card now has free driver. Never knew, and was pleased by this new knowledge. Bur in order to use this firmware  you need to download couple of components from different web sites. There is again lengthy step-by-step guide how to do this. But language of this guide is not something unprepared user can understand. I am using Linux for more than 7 months now, I used sources to compile some of my software. But I could not properly understand the guide. Simple example: guide asks you to download
a snapshot of b43-tools from:
If you follow the link, there is no downloadable item named b43-tools. Instead, there are two dozens of other links. Which of them is correct?
Clearly, gNewSense is oriented on people with more technical knowledge than average [Linux] user. I hope authors understand this fact and try to simplify the documentation about their system.
What was also confusing me? I am still not sure what is the basis of gNewSense. Official FAQ says that developers prefer to use Debian because it has better split between free and non-free software, compared to Ubuntu. But there are still lots of links with ubuntu in their names all around the system.
My understanding of modern Linux movement is to move Linux closer to end-user. To remove aura of "geeky stuff" from Tux, make it user-friendly to inexperienced user. Many Linux distros follow this way. This is Mint with their Mint menu and inclusion of almost everything which people usually need in their day-to-day life. This is Ubuntu who picked up user-friendly slogan previously created by Mandrake and Caldera eDesktop. Fedora, Mandriva, (CTK) Arch... Even Debian has some movement in that direction.
From another side, I clearly see the reason why free software has right to existence. People should be able to break their dependency on software developers' licenses.
But why these two vectors (user-friendliness and freedom) had not met in gNewSense? Why did developers cared more about technical stuff than about their userbase? Did they purely oriented their puristic OS to computer geeks who have deep knowledge of programming?
These are the questions which I could not understand myself... gNewSense made no sense for me here.


  1. >This is Ubuntu who actually pioneered the user-friendly slogan<

    There were several distributions before this, Mandrake Linux and Caldera eDesktop were already very user friendly back in 1999. Please stop perpetuating this myth about Ubuntu being the one and only, the first etc. Otherwise you only show how little you know.

  2. @Anonymous:
    I edited that passage. Thanks for advice.

  3. My personal opinion is that this isn't a numbers game. If we keep dumbing software down and just accepting proprietary drivers and software so that more people will use it then we're simply moving from one proprietary system (Window/OSX) to another as it simply lead lots proprietary drivers and software. I care about freedom not numbers. Also why would you bother grabbing an old release of gNewsense rather than a more recent libre distro such as Trisquel?

  4. openSuSE has been userfriendly for long time, too…

    But what is your problem? You do not have to be a programmer to compile a wireless driver. And you say it is not userfriendly at all just because there is a broken link? That just happens – even at distributions' websites with larger communities.

  5. @Anonymous:
    > If we keep dumbing software down and just accepting proprietary drivers and software so that more people will use it then we're simply moving from one proprietary system (Window/OSX) to another.
    The issues here are:
    1) MP3 format is too popular too omit it. And unfortunately it is not FOSS. Same will happen with BlueRay I believe in near future.
    2) Hardware vendors dictate their rules about firmware. Some of them don't want to open their drivers' codes, make them free.
    Until we have these issues, we can't get 100% free system, whether it is Win/OSX/Linux. We can just talk about different shades of grey. And Linux is much closer to the white here.

    >a more recent libre distro such as Trisquel
    Everything has its own pace. I put Trisquel into my list. There are too many distros there, and it's my right to choose which one to try. Thanks for an idea!

  6. @The User:
    >But what is your problem? You do not have to be a programmer to compile a wireless driver.
    Sure. I compiled applications myself. But I need decent manual to work it through.

    >And you say it is not userfriendly at all just because there is a broken link?
    Have you read text attentively? Link works, but it leads to the list of objects neither of which clearly says "you need me!". Manual is too vague around this.
    Then, "userfrienliness" and "compile driver" does not go well together in my mind. Userfrienliness is a message which says "We found this hardware, please click here and do a-b-c to install driver". This is what I have seen in Ubuntu when I made installation.

  7. I do not agree about MP3 not being FOSS. AFAIK, ffmpeg is licensed under a Free as in freedom license, and there are a lot of countries where you don't have to pay a license to play MP3 (all countries who forbid patenting of math algorithms).

    If gNewSense wants to give their non-US users a taste of real freedom, they must enable "Free as in freedom but patented and not safe for use in the United States of America" repositories.

  8. @Alejandro Nova:
    Ffmpeg is distributed under (L)GPL. But even their legal FAQ says that they're not 100% sure about legal compliance.

    You actually touched very interesting topic here. Although, it is not directly about gNewSense.
    Lots of distributions only care about English-speaking communities, and mostly US. They don't bother about inclusion of locales, or about options to add/switch keyboard layouts.