Updated: March 27, 2009
Recently, I've received an email from a somewhat disgruntled fan. The mail he sent me was a little sad and it left a deep impression on me. He raised a very valid point: Linux was easy and multimedia on Linux was easy - but only for people with solid Internet connection.
Thinking about it, I realized he was right. Downloading 200MB of extras, which include various multimedia codecs, Flash, Java, and other goodies seems is a matter of minutes for most of us. But what about people who do not have broadband?
People with old modems and dial-up have to spend hours downloading packages. Even at full speed, the 56K dial-up will take approx. 2.5 minutes to download a single MB, which turns out into close to 10 hours of grueling downloads just to get MP3 playing.
And then, there was the matter of modem support. Most modern Linux distros have only limited support for dial-up modems. Not a problem if only 1-2% of world population had to use dial-up. But the truth is, most people in this world do not have broadband.
When you think more deeply, the truth becomes rather harsh. More than a billion people on this planet do not have enough food or water or medicines to maintain the most basic life standards that we find so trivial. More than billion people on this planet do not have electricity in their homes, let alone Internet. It's nice to live in USA, Europe or Oz, but what about China or India or the entire African continent? Chinese and Indians alone constitute almost half the world population and only some of them have access to the Internet. In China, it's 20%. In India, it's 5%.
According to different sources I've read, approx. 30% of Indian Internet users use dial-up. China may have as many broadband lines as USA, but it also has five times more people. Approx. 55% of Chinese people are connected with dial-up lines. And those that do have broadband pay dearly for it.
If I make a few rough calculations, it turns out that there are some 25 millions dial-up users in India and 160 million dial-up users in China only. Throw in Brazil, Russia, Middle East and Africa into the picture and you'll easily get 300+ million dial-up users who cannot afford to spend days downloading this or that Linux distro.
I am not saying these things to make fun of anyone. It's a simple, cruel reality check.
Changing the entire world is impossible. Nor should one attempt to do so. Solving poverty, famine or wars is not my legacy. I'm a Linux user and such, I might be able to help other Linux users around the world.
And so can you ...
What am I suggesting?
Let's help people without broadband enjoy Linux. More than that, let's help them enjoy multimedia and games, which do not come with most distros. Ubuntu is shipping freely around the world, but the basic distro lacks lot of stuff that people might want or need and have to download it.
Setting up a foundation or a donation program probably won't work. Most people around the world do not trust one are leery of any overnight funds and charity PayPal accounts. So instead of focusing the effort on any one person and failing, I say let's do it together, yet individually, and succeed.
My plan goes like this:
1. Create a Linux distro that has it all
You can do it at home. You don't need to be hackers. Install Ubuntu. Install all the programs you want, including media codecs, some games, update all the packages. Then, use Remastersys or similar software to create you own redistributable and installable live CD. As mentioned, Remastersys allows you just that - to create a fully deployable version of your already installed distro. This, with all the fancy stuff added.
The best course of action would be to formalize what "boosted" distros should contain, but as long as the effort is individual, any contribution will work. So for now, here's a very short list of applications and plugins that I think would be most adequate:
- Audacity (with LAME)
- IEs4Linux (not sure if this is legal, but maybe)
- Build essential utilities (build-essential)
- VirtualBox (including updated software sources)
- VLC (with plugin for Firefox)
- Flash Player for Firefox
- Java Runtime Environment
- Windows media codecs (gstreamer from the ugly repositories)
I've also considered a few games, but these tend to be quite big. However, packaging all of the above-listed applications and plugins would most definitely result in an image exceeding the 700MB CD limit. This means that the remastered image would have to burned to a DVD, which most likely leaves quite a bit of free space for non-essential stuff. If games are to be included, I would go for Urban Terror, FreeCiv, Wesnoth, and OpenArena.
If you have other ideas, feel free to email me and I'll update the list. The goal is to include programs that you find truly essential. Otherwise, we might as well go for the entire repository collection.
Updates - Users' recommendations
This section contains the list of software ad general ideas that you suggested should be included in the custom-created distribution.
- Use a smaller distribution than Ubuntu (like Puppy) or one with incremental (delta) updates, like openSUSE. Debian would also be a good choice, loaded with a lightweight desktop like Xfce.
- A user-friendly firewall GUI, since dial-up users are not likelt to be using a router.
- Opera browser, as it contains a built-in email client (listed above).
- Make sure the additional software (like VLC, Java, VirtualBox) is included in official repositories, or have the additional third-party repositories added to the software sources to help maintain an up-to-date software baseline.
- Consider a lightweight desktop environment instead of Gnome or KDE.
- ClamAV can help scan files, especially if there's a lot of sharing with Windows users.
- Full localization support used in the chosen distro.
If you have more ideas and suggestions, don't hesitate to email me. I'd like to thank N1ckR, bktII, admo, and Johanna for their feedback.
2. Burn a few copies
Burn several CD/DVDs, as much as you can afford to spend time and money on. In general, this should not be the breaking point in the entire endeavor. You probably won't spend much more than 5 dollars.
3. Send to a friend / another Linux user without broadband via postal mail
This will cost you maybe another 5 dollars and it most likely won't kill you, unless you cut a major artery with the sharp edge of an envelope. Then, you can ship your remastered package anywhere around the world.
The big question is: How to find the right person to send the package to?
Well, it does not take much. Linux forums, bulletin boards and newsgroups are a good place to advertise your plan. If people want, they'll give you their address. This can also be the address of a school, a local post office or anything alike, so there should be no grand privacy issues.
Then, once you have the address, ship the package. Add a complementary note explaining the contents of the CD/DVDs so that nosy customs agents do not freak out when they see the shiny discs.
That's it. Nothing special or fancy. It won't solve the world problems, but it may help a few people. I'm not fully sure about possible legal implications of shipping software around the world, but I don't see major obstacles that prevents ordinary users, de-facto individual non-profit organizations, from helping fellow humans around the globe.
Like any innocent, benevolent ideas, I'm sure this could either become a huge success or backfire horribly. There will always be people who might want to exploit the situation to their advantage. A wild, somber thought of rootkitted software comes to mind, so it's obvious this idea will have to rely on mutual trust if it's ever to succeed.
But we can only try and hope for the best ...
I'll suggest this to our Human Resources department at the workplace. You should, too, wherever you work. In addition to being a solid publicity stunt in favor of your company, it will actually help people and raise awareness to Linux and open-source, and this is what matters.