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Review: Freespire 3 and Linspire 7.0

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Before I started my trial I was under the impression that Freespire and Linspire were quite different from stock Xubuntu. The Linspire blog, for instance, talks about binary blobs in "our" kernel and proprietary packages provided by vendors to Linspire. As I quickly learned, Linspire doesn't have its own repositories (let alone a custom kernel) and the proprietary packages are provided via the ubuntu-restricted-extras package. Similarly, the lead developer recently wrote on his blog that people who claim that Linspire is just a Xubuntu respin should "mind their own business" because they have no idea how much work has gone into customising Linspire over the last 18 months. When I asked the company if they could give some examples of how Linspire is different from Xubuntu I was told that, actually, their aim is to stay as close to Xubuntu as possible.

It would be unfair, however, to dismiss Freespire and Linspire as Xubuntu clones. The distros have two interesting selling points. Firstly, PC/OpenSystems can legally ship certain patent-encumbered codecs. Of course, anyone can install the ubuntu-restricted-extras package but in some jurisdictions doing so may be illegal. It is probably fair to say that few people care about such legalities but if you prefer to play by the rules then Linspire is worth a look.

Secondly, Linspire's main feature is the support license. You don't pay $79.99 for Xubuntu with a Linspire sticker - you buy a year's worth of support. Linspire might be an attractive option for small businesses and organisations that want to run Linux with a support contract. Similarly, I reckon many home users will like the idea of being able to get professional support for their Linspire box(es). That said, it is disappointing that the only real customisations (as in code changes) are regressions: the installer is far from a finished product. It is also unfortunate that Freespire lacks direction. The new Freespire was presented as an almost fully libre distro, yet the initial release clearly was the exact opposite. Only after pointing this out did PC/OpenSystems quietly release a new ISO.

The main issue I had with the distros was something else though: the marketing/PR/spin. I have already mentioned various examples of dubious claims. I would like to add one more example, just because it nicely illustrates my gripe: the Freespire page claims that, unlike Freespire, Linux Mint is difficult to install. PC/OpenSystems arrived at that conclusion based on its own research: a whopping three people were asked to install Freespire, Ubuntu and Linux Mint and the "sample group" apparently struggled to install Mint.

This type of marketing is needlessly negative. I would rather see the company work with, say, the Trisquel developers, who have already solved the issue with the checkbox in the Ubiquity installer and who may also be able to help Freespire become an FSF-approved distro. I would love to see a proper bug tracking tool so that I would have an easy way to report issues. And I think it would also be nice if PC/OpenSystems would start sharing the code it claims to produce.

In short, I think both Freespire and Linspire are on to something. I like the idea of a fully libre Xubuntu spin and I am sure there is demand for Linspire. I just hope history won't repeat itself.

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