Friday, 5 December 2008

a FREE COMPUTER - are you serious?

In certain blogs and forums - like gnewsense's - you can read about 'free computers' lately. This sounds nice - and it indeed is -, but it is perhaps not what you think it is. The terminology is somewhat confusing and might need some explanation.
First of all, it is not the computer which is free. The mentioned machine is a Lemote Yeeloong, produced in China and equipped with a MIPS processor. It will not be given away for free: a dutch webshop,, will sell the machine for 330 euros plus taxes plus freight costs. This is surely not what you'd call "free".
Instead what is free about the machine is the software installed. You might say: 'I always get a free Windows operating system when I buy a computer.' Here there are two mistakes, one obvious - the price of the Windows OS is well-hidden in the price for the machine - and one less obvious. The latter is about the meaning of "free".
Free software is often gratuit, but that is not what it's all about. The slogan is "Free as in freedom, not as in free beer". Free software gives you four essential freedoms:
(freedom 0) to run the program
(freedom 1) to make changes to the program (this IMPLIES and is not equivalent to having access to the source code)
(freedom 2) to redistribute copies of the program
(freedom 3) to improve the program and distribute YOUR version of the program (same remark as for freedom 1)
(see also here)
These freedoms were defined and are promoted by Richard M. Stallman, the founder of GNU and the Free Software Foundation.
Now that we know more about which kind of "free" we are talking about, we can ask to which level free software is possible. Unfortunately for many people this is still a dream at the moment, since for some hardware - mainly network devices - non-free software is needed for it to work properly. And even if a machine works with a free operating system such as gNewSense (see above), its BIOS most likely is not free.
Lemote now will put an end to this misery by selling a machine which works with free software AND a free BIOS. Unfortunately one of the most popular free operating systems, gNewSense, is not yet available for MIPS architecture. The FSF is on the search for a programmer who would take over the port of gNewSense to MIPS. So if you are one, take a look at this page.


The project page is here:

A screenshot of the Yeeloong running gNewSense mipsel with Gnome is here:

The hacking page for the Lemote hardware (both Yeeloong laptop and Fuloong mini box) is here:

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