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The Sad State Of FSF's High Priority Projects

Free Software

Published on 15 October 2011 09:58 AM EDT
Written by Michael Larabel in Free Software
57 Comments

With the Free Software Foundation having removed GNU PDF from their list of high priority projects after declaring the open-source work to implement proper Adobe PDF support a success, what's left to the FSF high priority project list and how are those remaining projects coming along?

Below is also the list of the high priority projects and a brief status update for each -- based upon my knowledge of the project's and what I've been able to turn up regarding recent work during some searches. Likely in the forums will be additional information and thoughts from Phoronix readers.

Gnash: Gnash is the open-source Adobe Flash/SWF player that's approved by the FSF, hosted by GNU.org, and has been in development for several years to provide an alternative to the binary-only Adobe Flash Player for Linux. Gnash has been in development for about six years and went into beta in 2008 and has seen several releases since, with the latest release being earlier this year. While this GPL-licensed Flash Player is of interest to many, there are few developers involved (the active ones could be counted on one hand) and SWFv7 is their latest fully supported version. There's partial support for SWFv8, SWFv9, and SWFv10, but it's far from being capable of supporting all the latest features found in the modern Flash Player 10 and now Flash Player 11. Gnash supports Cairo and OpenGL rendering along with VA-API for video acceleration. Gnash also works on multiple CPU architectures.

Gnash is still actively developed (you can see its Git information on the web), but capturing more attention as of late has been Lightspark. Lightspark has a fairly interesting graphics engine, offers just-in-time compilation of ActionScript using LLVM, multi-threading support, and other technical advantages. Lightspark also targets more modern SWF features and ActionScript 3 support where Gnash is lacking. If Lightspark can't handle something, it's also capable of falling back to using Gnash.

Regardless of whether it's Lightspark or Gnash, there's still a long way to go in reaching a feature parity to the official Adobe Flash Player for Linux. It's even still common for YouTube support to break in Gnash/Lightspark and requires then updating the open-source player. It will be a while before this can be removed from the Free Software Foundation's high-priority list.

Coreboot: This is the free software project once known as LinuxBIOS where it aims to replace proprietary BIOS/firmware with a clean open-source implementation. It's not only a free software goal to free up the motherboard BIOS, but the Free Software Foundation also desires free BIOS implementations for graphics cards too. Coreboot has matured a lot over the past few years and now it supports a wide variety of motherboards (Coreboot motherboard list) on many different chipsets (the device list), but it's still far from mainstream.

Running an open-source program on your desktop that can potentially crash is one thing, but users are much more apprehensive about flashing their BIOS and potentially bricking their system. The big problem for Coreboot is the lack of mainstream hardware shipping with it rather than the proprietary offerings from American Megatrends, etc. The big hardware vendor that supports Coreboot is AMD; the company has pledged to support Coreboot with all future CPUs. AMD backs Coreboot with code drops, chipset/CPU specifications, and hardware samples. Even with AMD's backing, motherboard vendors still aren't ready to use Coreboot on production hardware, but I've seen it beginning to take the interest of some OEMs and we might see it on some select products beginning this quarter.

Coreboot has also garnered the interest of the CME Group and some other financial institutions as the quicker hardware initialization, open-source nature, and other benefits are certainly in their interest. Thanks to them, we may be seeing Coreboot appear on some more server hardware going forward. It could be an interesting 2012 for the Coreboot project, but still this isn't likely to move off the Free Software Foundation's high priority list in the foreseeable future.

Free Software Replacement For Skype: The Free Software Foundation also wants a replacement to the proprietary Skype program. According to the Free Software Foundation, "Skype is seducing free software users into using proprietary software, often two users at a time." Now that Microsoft owns Skype, the Free Software Foundation is likely to hate Skype even more.

The Free Software Foundation isn't backing a single project for this goal, but rather they encourage people to contribute to projects like Ekiga, Twinkle, Coccinella, QuteCom, and SIP-Communicator. Having a free software program that can replace all of Skype's features and at the same time even be semi-popular is a rather lofty goal, but at least it will likely move off the high priority list sooner than Coreboot or Gnash.

Free Software Video Editing: Besides a Skype replacement, another very sore spot on the Linux desktop is the lack of useful open-source non-linear video editing applications. The Free Software Foundation encourages users to support Kino, Cinelerra, AVIDemux, Kdenlive, LiVES, Lumiera, PiTiVi, Blender, and Open Movie Editor. Not on the list but of growing interest and popularity is OpenShot, Lightworks, and Novacut. Of all the free software projects working on an open-source video editor, the last two listed are perhaps the most promising.

Free Google Earth Replacement: While Google is quite friendly towards Linux and open-source (among the most friendly), the Free Software Foundation doesn't like it that Google Earth is proprietary software and it's a high priority for them that it gets replaced. The FSF wants a free software replacement that uses Open Street Maps, but that data alone tends to be less than stellar and not really comparable to Google's trove of useful data. I don't even really agree with the Free Software Foundation's listing of this as a high priority project for the success of free software; a free software version of Google Earth isn't going to make or break it for free software and the Linux desktop. I (and likely many more users) would much rather see language learning software (i.e. Rosetta Stone replacement) or proper tax/accounting programs (i.e. TurboTax replacement) on this list instead, which would affect a lot more people.

GNU/Linux Distributions Committed To Freedom: The Free Software Foundation wants users to support distributions like Trisquel, gNewSense, and other Linux distributions that contain only free software. The list of Free Software Foundation distributions that they deem to align with their goals is listed here. There's only nine of them and the Debian/Ubuntu-derived gNewSense is likely the only one you may have ever heard of. It's unlikely any of them will ever gain much adoption.

GNU Octave: The Matlab program is popular in academia for numerical computations, but the Free Software Foundation wishes to replace it with GNU Octave. Octave is still actively developed with the most recent release coming just earlier this week.

Replacement Of OpenDWG Libraries: OpenDWG is a collection of CAD files, a specification for CAD format, and proprietary software for manipulating these files. I'm not too sure why this is deemed a high priority project either, but the LibreDWG project (as recommended by the FSF) is still in alpha development with no releases yet. The last commit to the LibreDWG Git repository was in January of 2011.

Reversible Debugging in GDB: Reversible debugging support is being worked on for the GDB debugger. There is already some reversible-debugging support in place and it just needs to be extended.

Free Software Drivers for Network Routers: The Free Software Foundation wants free software drivers for network routers, since many of them right now are proprietary and are needed for projects like OrangeMesh. However, there isn't any concerted effort at this point to provide open-source drivers for network routers en mass. The Free Software Foundation just recommends contacting the device manufacturers and asking them for NDA-free specifications and/or open-source code.

Free Software Version of Oracle Forms: Oracle Forms is part of the Oracle Fusion Middleware and used by various enterprise applications. The Free Software Foundation goal for this project is to make a replacement to Oracle Forms front-end that allows people to use free SQL databases rather than Oracle's database software. There isn't actually any code being worked on here yet, but they just cite a mailing list to go to if interested in contributing. That mailing list only has a few e-mails from April and June of this year. This isn't moving off the list in the near future.

Automatic Transcription: There's a need for free software that's capable of automatically transcribing recordings. Like the Oracle Forms replacement, there isn't any real work going on here at the moment, or at least not publicly. The Free Software Foundation just recommends interested users go to this Wiki to discuss.

PowerVR Drivers: This is the project talked about on Phoronix a few times this year. In February the FSF deemed reverse-engineering PowerVR to be a high priority, but there isn't any activity. The not recognized community developer is waiting to receive money/donations before committing to this work beyond the bits that have been done for reverse-engineering USSE opcodes. The project's goals does include creating a Gallium3D PowerVR driver and using LLVM to take advantage of multi-core SoCs.

Those are the Free Software Foundation's high priority projects that are still outstanding. The list of the Free Software Foundation's "high priority projects" can be found at FSF.org. It's unlikely any of them will be dropped off the list in the immediate future for reaching completion, either due to their very lofty goals (e.g. Gnash and Coreboot) while the other projects just aren't seeing any activity even though the Free Software Foundation deems them a high priority (e.g. Oracle Forms replacement, automatic transcription, LibreDWG, PowerVR drivers). The Free Software Foundation does collect donations for these high-priority projects, but it's unclear how the funds are spent or how much money has been collected. Long story short, being on the Free Software Foundation's high priority list really doesn't mean much with some of these "important" projects not even being actively developed or even discussed.

About The Author
Michael Larabel is the principal author of Phoronix.com and founded the web-site in 2004 with a focus on enriching the Linux hardware experience and being the largest web-site devoted to Linux hardware reviews, particularly for products relevant to Linux gamers and enthusiasts but also commonly reviewing servers/workstations and embedded Linux devices. Michael has written more than 10,000 articles covering the state of Linux hardware support, Linux performance, graphics hardware drivers, and other topics. Michael is also the lead developer of the Phoronix Test Suite, Phoromatic, and OpenBenchmarking.org automated testing software. He can be followed via and or contacted via .
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