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GNU is Not Unix Portables Hardware Your Rights Online

Free Software Foundation Endorses a "Truly Free" Laptop 340

Posted by timothy
from the high-standards dept.
An anonymous reader writes "The Free Software Foundation announced today the first laptop they have been able to certify as-is that respects the user's freedoms. The laptop is free down to using Coreboot in place of a proprietary BIOS. The OS shipped on the laptop is Trisquel, the Ubuntu derived Linux OS that removes all traces of proprietary firmware, patented formats, etc. The only issue though for new customers is this endorsed laptop comes down to being a refurbished 2006 ThinkPad X60 with single or dual-core Intel CPU, 1GB+ of RAM, 60GB+ HDD, and a 1024x768 12.1-inch screen, while costing $320+ USD (200 GBP). The FSF-certified refurbished laptops are only offered for sale through the Gluglug UK shop. Are these outdated specs worth your privacy and freedom?"
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Free Software Foundation Endorses a "Truly Free" Laptop

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  • Well... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by twocows (1216842) on Thursday December 19, 2013 @02:59PM (#45738665)
    I support the FSF, but I can really just install free software on my own computers. This even includes coreboot usually. And they're a lot less expensive and a lot more powerful. I suppose it might be good to buy if your child needs a laptop or something.
    • Re:Well... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by briancox2 (2417470) on Thursday December 19, 2013 @03:09PM (#45738779) Homepage Journal
      I get the sense that the FSF, though having some very good ideals, has no understanding of the importances of "just works" and "value added".
      • by ciaran_o_riordan (662132) on Thursday December 19, 2013 @03:20PM (#45738927) Homepage

        > no understanding of the importances of "just works"

        That's not their part of the job.

        Various entities can label something as user-friendly. FSF is pretty much the only entity that can label stuff as free.

        This is one laptop. Hopefully next year there'll be twenty, and then someone can take on the job of announcing which is the most user-friendly of the twenty free laptops.

        • That's not their part of the job.

          Maybe not. But a group that can't see other important issues because of one issue that they own is jeapordizing its own relevancy to the rest of society. That's fundamentalism in a nutshell.

        • haha, someone modded my two comments down because they disagree.

          I guess they want FSF to do everything and hand it to them on a plate, free, user-friendly, zero cost.

        • by atriusofbricia (686672) on Thursday December 19, 2013 @04:31PM (#45739775) Journal

          > no understanding of the importances of "just works"

          That's not their part of the job.

          Various entities can label something as user-friendly. FSF is pretty much the only entity that can label stuff as free.

          This is one laptop. Hopefully next year there'll be twenty, and then someone can take on the job of announcing which is the most user-friendly of the twenty free laptops.

          I'd take issue with them nominating themselves as the one true source, but that's neither here nor there. The real question is whether people will be willing to pay exorbant prices for relatively ancient hardware on the grounds that it very slightly increases the amount of "freedom" they have. Given that 99.95% of people will have no idea what this is about and further wouldn't care if they did (as we're talking about an increase that is difficult if not impossible to measure and arguably doesn't exist) I wouldn't hold your breath on this becoming anything more than an isolated instance.

          In short, unless one can prove that even a tiny percentage of computer BIOSes and the like are phoning home or contacting the NSA with daily activity reports exactly no one, on the grand scale, will care. It reminds me of all the efforts to create a "free" CPUs or graphics cards in the past. Sure, you could do it and have them as long as you're okay with 10 or 15 year old technology that is incapable of doing anything that is currently useful. But it's Free! :D

      • Re:Well... (Score:4, Insightful)

        by unixisc (2429386) on Thursday December 19, 2013 @03:30PM (#45739031)
        Oh, they understand it just fine, they just think it's less important than 'freedom' and 'privacy'. For instance, for most users, allowing JavaScript to run so that something they want to run actually runs would be 'just works' or added value, but for the FSF, all JavaScript is snooping, and shouldn't be allowed. Similarly, software that is distributed in a portable format, such as bytecode, is convenient for an end user, but hated by RMS, since it's not the source and doesn't respect your freedoms.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by spikeb (966663)
          actually, the FSF uses javascript and has licenses appropriate for it,
        • Re:Well... (Score:4, Insightful)

          by secretcurse (1266724) on Thursday December 19, 2013 @04:00PM (#45739419)

          but for the FSF, all JavaScript is snooping, and shouldn't be allowed

          Please point your browser to https://www.fsf.org/ [fsf.org] and view the source. Search the page for "" and see if the FSF really believes what you claim.

          • Crap, didn't escape my characters. Search for "script type="text/javascript""
            • by unixisc (2429386)
              Check out this Stallman interview w/ /. [slashdot.org]

              Instead we are trying to do something that Firefox does not aim to do: protect the user's privacy from surveillance by web sites, and protect the user's freedom from nonfree Javascript code. A volunteer is working on our variant of Firefox, called IceCat, with changes for these purposes. We don't have funds for this, so would you like volunteer to help?

      • Re:Well... (Score:4, Insightful)

        by aaaaaaargh! (1150173) on Thursday December 19, 2013 @03:33PM (#45739057)

        As an owner of a refurbished Thinkpad - from a German reseller of used laptops, not the company mentioned in the story - I can assure you that any old Thinkpad with GNU/Linux just works. Older Thinkpads are among the laptops with the best Linux support you can find. I use mine every day for 8 hours for years (and before that I used another old Thinkpad for years).

        Regarding the other thing you mention, to be honest I have to admit that I have no idea what "value added" means. I've heard it occasionally but always though it was more like a meaningless buzzword or (worse) a synonym for pre-installed bloatware. What does it mean?

        • I have a Lenovo Thinkpad X60 that I've used for several years as a drawing tablet. (I assume the models being sold for this are without the very-proprietary patented Wacom digitizer). The swivel hinges don't hold up too well to abuse (I've had to do a "hip replacement" on mine), but it's otherwise a good piece of hardware for its day.
        • by drinkypoo (153816)

          Older Thinkpads are among the laptops with the best Linux support you can find.

          Well, I had an A21p and the NIC wasn't supported. And the only other factory option was a combo card with a supported NIC, but an unsupported modem. That's just one guy with one machine, but it made me grumpy.

      • Re:Well... (Score:4, Insightful)

        by vux984 (928602) on Thursday December 19, 2013 @03:38PM (#45739119)

        I get the sense that the FSF, though having some very good ideals, has no understanding of the importances of "just works" and "value added"

        The FSF is like extreme overclockers. They are concerned with software freedom the way overclockers are concerned with cpu performance maximums, or drag racers are concerned with 1/4 mile times.

        Criticising the FSF for pushing software freedom as far as they can is like criticising extreme overclockers for using bulky custom expensive cooling solutions, or drag racers for lousy cornering, and needing a parachute to stop.

        Sure I'll probably never buy one of those devices, but I like that they are out there, and I support them, pushing the envelope. And even if I don't live right on the edge with them, preferring 'just works' to 'ideals' for a lot of day to day stuff, my 'just works' is a lot closer to 'ideals' than it would be without the FSF as a lot of that does trickle into what I use daily, even if I don't use it all, all the time.

        I like the FSF pushing that envelope as far as they possibly can.

    • by SirGarlon (845873)

      And they're a lot less expensive and a lot more powerful.

      That depends on how much value you place on an hour of your time and how fast you can configure free software. For me the comparative advantage [wikipedia.org] probably lies with paying someone else to get the thing working.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by spikeb (966663)
      yes you can, although you'll find coreboot without blobs doesn't support hardly anything...which is why this is important.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 19, 2013 @03:00PM (#45738673)

    Seriously. I laughed.

  • Privacy? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by pegr (46683) on Thursday December 19, 2013 @03:00PM (#45738675) Homepage Journal

    Your privacy can be compromised with open hardware, just as easily as with closed.

    Freedom I see, however.

    • by SirGarlon (845873)
      TFA doesn't make any claims about privacy. That must be the opinion of the submitter, not the FSF.
      • by unixisc (2429386)
        But the FSF - doesn't RMS always speak for them? - makes privacy an issue for its endorsement, like when they slammed Ubuntu for including searches that go to Amazon. So one would expect that their solution would preclude the possibility of your privacy being compromised.
      • "...none of the software is known to contain backdoors or be designed to share users information without their knowledge"
    • Your privacy can be compromised with open hardware, just as easily as with closed.

      The problem is, the former at least allows the community to take a remedial action other than "go back to pen and paper".

  • by Anonymous Coward

    What is the point without free and open hardware too?

  • Umm, okay, but... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Penguinisto (415985) on Thursday December 19, 2013 @03:03PM (#45738705) Journal

    ...what can you do on it besides run gcc?

    Mind you, I'm not being a troll, nor am I dismissing the principles behind what they're doing. However, I am wondering how long it'll stay 'pure' before the user realizes "hey, I can't run $favorite_item, even though it normally runs fine on Linux!"

    I suspect that those few who bother will likely give up and park Ubuntu/Fedora/SomethingElse on it in very short order.

    (won't even touch on the fact that it's an older spec...)

    • by Kardos (1348077) on Thursday December 19, 2013 @03:16PM (#45738879)

      Creating free replacements for all non-free software is a monumental task that started many years ago, one that may never be complete. However, this is a milestone; the list of laptop models that are "truly free" can only expand from here, as can the includeable software. Have you seen the DD-WRT compatibility list recently? It was quite short a when that project was getting started.

    • by oodaloop (1229816)

      (won't even touch on the fact that it's an older spec...)

      I'm sure glad you didn't touch on that!

    • "...1024x768 12.1-inch screen "

      I'm so used to using a desktop with a 20"+ screen that every time I try to use my 14" laptop screen, I can't bear to use it. Add to that the small keyboard and track pack. By the time I'm done modifying my laptop to useable state - adding a mouse, a full keyboard, disabling the trackpad and adding a monitor ... I have a desktop. I don't see the point in a laptop unless one truly needs portability.

    • by unixisc (2429386) on Thursday December 19, 2013 @03:37PM (#45739109)

      ...what can you do on it besides run gcc?

      Run emacs. If you can run emacs, you shouldn't need anything else

    • ^ This...

      While it is a nice idea, it doesn't run my programs.

      I use MS Word and Excel on a regular basis, Adobe Acrobat (the real version) is my friend. Quickbooks is a part of my life.

      The time and energy put into learning these programs means that, while there are indeed "free" options out there, the time and energy required to switch FAR exceeds the cost of the software.

      I get that there is more than the price, snooping software is another concern, but frankly, I'm not a single issue voter when it

  • by hawguy (1600213) on Thursday December 19, 2013 @03:04PM (#45738709)

    Is the harddrive running open-source firmware too? How could I possibly store my data on a device that uses proprietary software?

    • > Is the harddrive running open-source firmware too?

      A disingenuous double attack.

      First: "Since I can't be perfect, why should I make any effort at all?"

      Second: "FSF is has compromised! that makes them insincere"

      The answer is that no, the hd firmware isn't open. Like the firmware of a microwave or common wristwatch, it's probably impossible to put new firmware on it, and it's probably not a problem.

      A line has to be drawn somewhere, so FSF's line is: if the software (including firmware) can be updated, i

      • by hawguy (1600213)

        > Is the harddrive running open-source firmware too?

        A disingenuous double attack.

        First: "Since I can't be perfect, why should I make any effort at all?"

        The article says:

        The free software operating system preloaded on the refurbished X60 is Trisquel GNU/Linux, the Ubuntu derivative backed by the FSF that ships without any proprietary software or firmware options.

        So tell me again who is being disingenous?

        Second: "FSF is has compromised! that makes them insincere"

        The answer is that no, the hd firmware isn't open. Like the firmware of a microwave or common wristwatch, it's probably impossible to put new firmware on it, and it's probably not a problem.

        A line has to be drawn somewhere, so FSF's line is: if the software (including firmware) can be updated, it must be free. The philosophy is that if it's complex or important, then the vendor will create a way to update the firmware. If the firmware can't be updated, then the code is probably sufficiently mundane as to be ignored, just as circuits are ignored.

        Why say it has "no proprietary firmware" when it clearly does?

        Firmware is available [seagate.com] for many (most?) hard drives. I'm not sure why that makes it difference -- if that particular laptop didn't allow BIOS updates, would it be ok to advertise it as not having p

    • by unixisc (2429386)
      Does it use an SDD? If yes, is the BIOS of the SDD coreboot?
    • Is the processor running free microcode?

      Also, did they really code their own SMC bios? I find that hard to believe.

  • Not really seeing what I get out of paying them to do this when in theory I could just make my own from a used laptop off eBay.
  • by psyclone (187154) on Thursday December 19, 2013 @03:04PM (#45738723)

    This path the FSF has taken to "create" a FLOSS system is not a bad one.

    Instead of needing to manufacture a new laptop, simply "refurbish" an existing model and gauge your target market.

    If the demand grows, newer models may be refurbished until it's economically viable to manufacture some.

    I believe the "truly free" system here is just a model of what the FSF would like to see available in the market and not an actual business plan to compete in the marketplace to sell computers.

  • by MrEricSir (398214) on Thursday December 19, 2013 @03:05PM (#45738733) Homepage

    ...like "Made in China."

  • Coreboot still applies microcode "binary blobs" from CPU vendors, so this still isn't truly free - http://www.coreboot.org/FAQ#Is_coreboot_applying_x86_microcode_patches.3F [coreboot.org]

    • by spikeb (966663)
      no, it is not. the FSF endorsed this laptop specifically because it runs without the blobs for CPU and VGA (or anything else)
      • The CPU still has its default blob inside it.
        All the FSF have done is strip out the bug fixes.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Well, that's stupid. Microcode updates are intimately tied to the CPU architecture and stepping, and are not really code in the sense that you probably think of it. Microcode "programs" parts of the CPU on a very low level, much lower than even assembly. If you don't trust the microcode, how can you trust the CPU itself?

  • Are these outdated specs worth your privacy and freedom?

    Nope, they are not. If only because the hope for "privacy" is still based on the claims of the makers and sellers. Just like it is for all other computer systems: no manufacturer would admit to be spying on their users. Certainly not in hardware.

  • by bradgoodman (964302) on Thursday December 19, 2013 @03:22PM (#45738937) Homepage

    Are these outdated specs worth your privacy and freedom?

    No - but the Market will ultimately decide that.

    • Re:Bang-per-Buck (Score:4, Interesting)

      by femtobyte (710429) on Thursday December 19, 2013 @03:32PM (#45739045)

      Unfortunately, "the Market" means "whoever has the most dollars," which are concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite of anti-freedom oligarchs. If you want to keep your privacy and freedom, you'll need to find better allies than "the Market," because Gates, Zuckerberg et al. "outvote" you (likely millions to one). Markets do not protect freedoms, aside from the freedom of oligarchs to rule unimpeded.

  • The version of Coreboot is used has been substantially modified so as to remove all optional firmware and microcode updates from the source code. The certified version of the source and binary can be found here, http://ryf.fsf.org/ [fsf.org]
  • by weilawei (897823) on Thursday December 19, 2013 @03:25PM (#45738973) Homepage
    I paid $200 for a Thinkpad T60 refurb (yes, a refurb, but you know, it hasn't faltered once). Comparable specs, faster CPU, less money. Not to mention this still isn't open hardware. I did have to strip whichever version of Windows came with it (didn't even look) and replace it with Debian, but it's been a quite a fine machine for work. (Programming, which doesn't exactly require a beast of a machine most of the time. Wowie! Look at that text editor go!)
  • There has to be a benefit somewhere. Most people don't just shell out money for their principles, and especially not something as vague and terrifying as freedom. There's perceived value in using Linux (no Microsoft lock-in, potential security issues, etc.), but if that means having to give up watching Netflix, then people will choose Netflix and buy a Windows or Apple machine.

    There's a market for truly secure though. There's a very big market in fact.

  • People who use an OpenMoko [openmoko.org] will love this.

    There's something to be said for what the FSF is trying to do. The problem is that they're too slow in doing it.

  • What about the microcode running on the CPU?
    What about the firmware on the various integrated peripherals, like the keyboard, hard drive, etc?

    • by spikeb (966663)
      unless you can put modified versions of software onto the hardware, the FSF doesn't care about it. so, unless the firmware is somehow flashable on the keyboard, hard drivfe, etc, that isn't an issue (at least to them). as for the microcode on cpu, in this case, it is modifiable and free.
      • All hard drives these days have firmware update software available.
        I wouldn't be surprised if there is a way to update keyboard firmware via software, since that would make manufacturing/production testing easier.

  • The hardware is perfectly usable for basic stuff, but it's absurdly expensive! That hardware costs about $100-$120 refurbished.
  • Is there a Hurd installer?

  • by RevWaldo (1186281) on Thursday December 19, 2013 @04:00PM (#45739421)
    The lesson is: never try. If something's hard to do, then it's not worth doing. You just stick that laptop in the closet next to your shortwave radio your karate outfit and your unicycle and we'll go inside and watch TV. What's on you ask? It just doesn't matter.

    .
  • This laptop contains proprietary Intel chips. We know that hardware makers like Intel have colluded with governments to insert undocumented die-level and firmware level "features" into their products that could serve as backdoors and otherwise weaken the device's security against sophisticated attackers.

    Where is the open source, audited CPU? Ethernet controller firmware? Wireless firmware? Microcode updates?

  • Not worth it.

    This will fail miserably.

  • ... but people like Glenn Greenwald might want something like this: a machine that has at least some attempt made to make the software transparent. The target audience is the paranoid.

    Sure, it may not be perfect (keyboard firmware, etc.).

  • CNET posted a review of the X60 in March 2006. Lenovo ThinkPad X60s [cnet.com] The release date for this "ultraportable," February 14. This is for all practical purposes an eight or nine year old machine.

    I am comfortable buying refurbished.

    But nothing this old --- and never without a warranty, however short-lived.

  • by bmajik (96670) <matt@mattevans.org> on Thursday December 19, 2013 @05:54PM (#45740681) Homepage Journal

    A long time ago (like, 1994), on the linuxnet irc network, there was this guy named _Joe_ that claimed he was going to build boards around the Dec Alpha chip that would be dedicated Linux workstations.

    We were all salivating.

    So far as I know, it never happened, (sadly).

    But I always wondered about it -- in the early days of Linux, most of the people working on it were used to using proprietary unix hardware with proprietary unixes. We were clearly willing to use non-windows compatible hardware if it made sense.

    It's somewhat surprising to me that "designed for Linux" workstations aren't more popular. On the low end, you have things like the Pi, but that's not necessarily setup to be a general purpose workstation. On the high end, you have the older Silicon Graphics big iron that was designed for Linux. Not really "normal workstation" material, and not by any means open hardware/software.

    I guess what I am curious about is that given the level of talent in the F/OSS community, why there doesn't seem to be a clear market participant that builds "Linux compliant" workstations and servers, including preferring chipsets that have open hardware and open firmware. And why isn't there an industry around designing those open cores and writing firmware for them?

    Being a fabless hardware company is easier than ever; where's the open source hardware platform that I _know_ doesn't have strange reliability issues (like the random MSI board I bought a few years back), doesn't leak RF/audio all over the place (like the Packard Bell my friend grew up with), and has 100% of its hardware well supported by in-box kernel drivers?

    The last few motherboards I've purchased from Newegg have all had subtle defects with them. I'd rather pay a bit more for a board where I knew that the people behind it weren't looking to cut costs but were instead looking to make a product they'd be happy to depend on day-in and day-out, and that part of that guarantee was that the board was widely used by the community and was made of open components that didn't have obsolescence designed in.

    That organization or those products may exist already, but its hard to tell who is selling a Rolls Royce vs. who is selling a lemon. If you go by reviews from places like Newegg, there isn't necessarily a correlation between brand and quality or price and quality.

    Does anyone have suggestions?

    (As an aside, I'm happy with the Raspberry Pi I bought. But it's clearly not a workstation replacement. Similarly, I'm happy with the Alix PCEngine I bought years ago to run my openBSD edge device. That custom hardware has worked very, very well. But it's not a general purpose workstation either)

    I guess my contention is that while I cannot afford SGI prices, I can (and will) pay more for something that I have a reasonable assurance of getting strong community support for. Who wants my money? :)

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