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Open Source madness!
Oct. 09, 2006

Opinion -- I love free software. I use open-source programs and operating systems every day. But once in a while, I want to take some free software developers and shake them until their teeth rattle.

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At the moment, I'm ticked off because the Debian community's recent hissy-fit over the Mozilla Corp.'s trademarked Firefox logo has led them, and others, to forking the Firefox code to avoid the use of the logo.

Gnuzilla, part of the Free Software Foundation's GNU Project, is creating "the 'GNU/Linux' version of same, to be dubbed 'IceWeasel.'" This may, or may not, become the logo-free version of Firefox that Debian will ship in its next distribution.

Regardless of how this turns out, the Firefox "bug" has been removed from Debian.

What are these people thinking!

Don Armstrong, a Debian developer who is active in legal issues affecting free software, told me, "The issue here is purely the license on the firefox logo; all parts of the Debian distribution have to be modifiable by those to whom we distribute. The firefox logo cannot be modified, and so we cannot ship it. Instead, we have been shipping the logo which is freely licensed."

I guess we can't keep the Firefox baby if the bathwater of logo-hackers might be offended!

Yes, I know, I know, it's against a strict interpretation of the Debian Social Contract. You know what. I don't care for fundamentalists.

There's also another problem. The Gnuzilla version is an honest-to-goodness fork of Firefox. The first change is an automatic block for Web sites that use zero-size images on other hosts to keep track of cookies. The second change alerts users when a site tries to rewrite the host name in links, which redirect the user to another site, to track clicks.

This is great. That's just what we need, a fork of perhaps the single most important open-source application.

It will mean more work for programmers. It will mean more work for Firefox, or should I say IceWeasel, extension developers. It will be what all forks are: a major pain for both users and developers.

By winning this "battle," the pedantic Debian developers have helped the proprietary forces of Microsoft and friends far more then the cause of Open Source.

Think. When you get a Windows box, you know Internet Explorer is the default browser. When you get Linux, there may be several browsers available to you, but you always know that Firefox will be one of your choices. Or, rather, it used to be.

If the IceWeasel forks gains popularity, we'll also have people having to deal with two slightly different browsers.

This will make would-be Debian users just a touch confused. And, you know what? It doesn't take much to befuddle users. A confused user isn't a happy user.

Given a choice between the Firefox they already know about and "IceWeasel," they're going to go for Firefox. Or, maybe, just maybe, instead of dealing with this confusing Linux stuff, they'll stick with Windows after all.

That will be just fine with some Linux users. You know the ones. The ones who grumble about that damn upstart Ubuntu, the ones who "correct" people that it's not "Linux" it's "GNU/Linux." In short, it's the ones who want Linux to stay a techie paradise and freedom trumps common sense.

Sorry, that's not my crew. I want Linux to be as user-friendly as Mac OS X, as powerful as AIX, and without this nonsense of having different names and icons for the same blasted programs.

[The full-size draft IceWeasel logo shown at the top of this story is located here.]

-- Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

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