5 Best Linux Distribution With No Proprietary Components

by on February 21, 2011 · 29 comments· LAST UPDATED August 7, 2013

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Linux is a free and open source operating system. However, Linux (and other open source operating system) can use and load device drivers without publicly available source code. These are vendor-compiled binary drivers without any source code and known as Binary Blobs. Die hard open source fans and Free Software Foundation (FSF) recommends completely removing all proprietary components including blobs. In this post I will list five best Linux distribution that meets the FSF's strict guidelines and contains no proprietary components such as firmware and drivers.

Top 5 Reasons to Avoid Binary Blobs

  1. Modification & distribution - Binary blobs can not be improved or fixed by open source developers. You can not distribute modified versions.
  2. Reliability - Binary blobs can be unsupported by vendors at any time by abandoning driver maintenance.
  3. Auditing - Binary blobs cannot be audited for security and bugs. You are forced to trust vendors not to put backdoor and spyware into the blob.
  4. Bugs - Binary blobs hide many bugs. Also, it can motivate people to buy new hardware.
  5. Portability - Binary blobs can not be ported on different hardware architectures. It typically runs on a few hardware architectures.

Look Ma Not Just Free Software!

The following are not just a distribution but offers additional benefits too:

  • Learn how a distribution works on the inside.
  • Ease of use.
  • An active community providing quick and helpful support.

#1: gNewSense

gNewSense is a GNU/Linux distribution based on Ubuntu Linux. However, gNewSense v3.0 will be based on Debian instead of Ubuntu. The current version is same as Ubuntu, but with all non-free software and binary blobs removed. The FSF considers gNewSense to be a GNU/Linux distribution composed entirely of free software.

Fig.01: Default gNewSense Desktop

Fig.01: Default gNewSense Desktop

The Latest stable release is v2.3 and it was released on September 14, 2009. By default gNewSense uses GNOME, as the official desktop environment. However, use can change the graphical user interface, install other window managers, and other software via its repositories using the apt-get command.

=> Download gNewSense

#2: Dragora

Dragora is a GNU/Linux distribution created from scratch. The FSF considers Dragora to be a GNU/Linux distribution composed entirely of free software. It has a very simple packaging system that allows you to: install, remove, upgrade and create packages with ease. Dragora features runit, among other things, for it's system startup by default, which ensures the complete control of system services.

Fig.02: Dragora GNU/Linux Desktop

Fig.02: Dragora GNU/Linux Desktop

=> Download Dragora

#3: BLAG and GNU

BLAG Linux is a GNU/Linux distribution based on Fedora Linux. The current version is just like Fedora but with all non-free software and binary blobs removed. The latest stable release, BLAG90001, is based on Fedora 9, and was released 21 July 2008.

Fig.03: Blag GNU/Linux Desktop

Fig.03: Blag GNU/Linux Desktop

BLAG comes with various server packages including Fedora plus updates, and support for 3rd party repo rom Dag, Dries, Freshrpms, NewRPMS, and includes custom packages. BLAG140000 (beta version) is based on Fedora 14, and was released on 8 February 2011. The FSF considers BLAG and GNU to be a GNU/Linux distribution composed entirely of free software.

Fig.03-1: Blag GNU/Linux 140k Beta Desktop

Fig.03-1: Blag GNU/Linux 140k Beta Desktop

=> Download BLAG Linux (stable) and BLAG140000 (beta version)

#4: Musix GNU/Linux

Musix GNU/Linux is a live CD and DVD Linux distribution based on Debian Linux. It is intended for music production, graphic design, audio and video editing, and general purpose applications. The FSF considers Musix to be a GNU/Linux distribution composed entirely of free software. Musix is developed by a team from Argentina, Spain, Mexico and Brazil. The main language used in development discussion and documentation is Spanish; however, Musix has a community of users who speak Spanish, Portuguese, and English. The default user interface is set to IceWM. However, user can install other interfaces such as KDE.

Fig.04: Musix GNU/Linux Desktop

Fig.04: Musix GNU/Linux Desktop

=> Download Musix GNU/Linux

#5: Trisquel

Trisquel is a GNU/Linux distribution based on Debian Linux operating system. The latest version is derived from Ubuntu Linux, but includes only free software with all blobs removed. The FSF considers Trisquel to be a GNU/Linux distribution composed entirely of free software with its own complete binary repository. It is intended for for small business / enterprises, domestic users and educational centers. From the project home page:

Trisquel has several editions, designed for different uses: the one called simply Trisquel ― the most important one ― is intended for home and personal use, and includes a lot of apps for that: networking, multimedia, office, games, etc. The Edu edition is designed for educational centers, and allows the teacher to build a custom digital classroom within minutes. The Pro edition is for enterprises, and includes accounting and business management software. The Mini edition is for netbooks and older computers.

Fig.05: Trisquel GNU/Linux Desktop

Fig.05: Trisquel GNU/Linux Desktop

#6: Other Recommendation From FSF

Ututo is a GNU/Linux distribution based on Gentoo Linux. It is compiled using Gentoo Linux "ebuilds" and "emerge" software. The FSF considers Ututo to be a GNU/Linux distribution composed entirely of free software with its own complete binary repository. It was the first fully free GNU/Linux system recognized by the GNU Project.

Venenux, a GNU/Linux distribution built around the KDE desktop.

Dynebolic, a GNU/Linux distribution with special emphasis on audio and video editing.

How Usable Are FSF Recommend GNU/Linux Distributions?

A lot of wireless cards and nvidia graphics did not worked with any of the above distros as blobs are removed. However, I was able to install it on my old Intel Celeron 1.7GHz desktop with 512MB RAM + 40GiB disk. Graphics worked well including onboard NIC, sound card and Atheros wireless card also worked out without any problems.

A Note About OpenBSD

OpenBSD developers do not permit the inclusion of closed source binary drivers in the source tree and are reluctant to sign NDAs. If you are serious about running a system with no binary blobs, you may want to try out OpenBSD too. It supports Gnome, KDE and other desktop environments too.

A Note About Debian GNU/Linux 6.x

From the project website:

The Debian project has been working in removing non-free firmware from the Linux kernel shipped with Debian for the past two release cycles. At the time of the releases of Debian 4.0 "Etch" and 5.0 "Lenny", however, it was not yet possible to ship Linux kernels stripped of all non-free firmware bits. Back then we had to acknowledge that freedom issues concerning Linux firmware were not completely sorted out.

Debian v6.x will provide the non-free firmware from the official non-free repository.

References:

  1. Jeremy Andrews conducts a free-ranging interview, focused mainly on OpenBSD 3.9 and drivers, that gives Theo a chance to explain how the big North American chip vendors' business practices make it harder for open source projects, talk about "binary blobs" vs firmware in drivers, and more.
  2. Guidelines for free system distributions
  3. OpenBSD 3.9: "Blob!" lyrics.
  4. Free GNU/Linux distributions

(Image credit: Respective GNU/Linux distribution projects webpage and wikipedia).

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Leo Rockway February 21, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Just some clarification: OpenBSD accepts nonfree firmware in its kernel.

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2 Viktor Lindberg February 22, 2011 at 3:00 pm

OpenBSD does not allow non free firmware in their kernel. They do however allow nonfree firmware blobs for their drivers. This might be considered a technical detail, but the OpenBSD project doesn’t allow for nonfree software in its kernel which I would guess they are quiet keen on proclaiming and right should be right without fsf connected people spreading false statements due to a small technical detail.

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3 rolle February 28, 2011 at 2:31 am

Drivers are in kernel. OpenBSD has proprietary firmware, it doesn’t matter if it is in kernel or running on embedded CPU in the Ethernet controler. That makes it no freer than Ubuntu.

Furthermore, OpenBSD has proprietary stuff like Opera in their port system and it treats it like it is Free Software package, ie, “builds” it. Build here does not mean compiling (since there is no source to begin with) but rather just downloading Opera from official site. However user might get deceived that Opera is real Free Software, since OpenBSD “builds” it like any other software in ports collection. So practically there is no way to know what package is really Free and which just “builds” in figure of speech, like Opera does.

For those reasons, OpenBSD is NOT a 100% Free OS. Not by a long stretch.

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4 spc February 21, 2011 at 6:24 pm

Once I’d tried libre kernel but I was dumbstruck by its sillyness. By that time I was using speedtouch dsl modem, which requires a proprietary firmware. Well driver is ok – it’s open, and it is available in linux libre kernel, but by, design it rejects installed firmware, YES, BY DESIGN. For crying out loud!!! Thus I coud not have working modem !!!! I wound up with crippled hardware, which was fully functional with stock kernel.
So, I’d said to myself F@#$@ it and went with “tainted” version.

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5 Viktor Lindberg February 22, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Freedom should not be ignored because of unnecessary pragmatism.

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6 queru May 21, 2011 at 8:23 pm

“unnecessary”? That is very subjective.

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7 Mike Linksvayer February 21, 2011 at 6:32 pm

Why are those the five best? Does list order imply that GNUsense is the very best? I would really like to see a list of free distros made with thoughtful analysis.

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8 AnonTwo February 22, 2011 at 2:43 am

I have to ask: Why do these things with Proprietary software matter to the common person?

Maybe i just don’t get Linux’s “problem”,but it seems counter intuitive to damn one set of software because the developers didn’t like your way of coding. Yes,open source has it’s benefits as you listed.However i’m sure closed source has it’s benefits as well.If it didn’t then a lot of people wouldn’t be using it would they?

That said,i have to wonder…do you have proprietary drivers? I assume for the typical user,you haven’t actually considered if they can use Pure Open Source OS’s at all,because despite open sources portability,that still requires you to be able to port it,usually with only limited help (we can’t ask you to code it for us,can we?).Slap yourself in the face once you realize you’ll have to figure out how to get a driver because your OS…Operating System…denied you it.

So,for example,i run Ubuntu Netbook on a Netbook computer via live USB…no internet.

Now what good is a netbook in this day and age without internet? Oh but wait theres the driver!…oh proprietary…is that why i don’t have the most basic feature of any computer? Okay lets install it…

…oh wait,since it isn’t installed by default,and i’m on live USB,my testing of Linux is now done,because it refuses to install the very drivers i need to actually use the internet! (For the record,it works similar to live CD,so i expect the same problem correct?)

This is one of the many problems i am having with Linux’s direction. it’s counter-intuitive and seems to be made backwards to actually being a helpful system. If you hate closed source thats fine,but even the Distributions that claim to be made around the idea of being a desktop OS aren’t really going to get far without something as basic as a driver right out of the box. At the very least do it with Live CD so people who actually trust closed source can test your OS.

that said,could you guys also get some standards thrown together so Developers don’t have to worry about compiling onto 50 different distributions? I’m sure companies would be a little more willing to make linux copies of their products if they didn’t expect only 5 people would be able to use the version they made…Also,so if a linux site is suggesting X item,it can be installed on more than Y Distribution? oh and mp3mostbasicmusicfiletyperestrictedwhat?

Anywho…theres my rant……of course,maybe i just don’t get it:Why deny users basic features and make THEM go through hoops and loops because of it? I kinda get the idea Linux is unpopular because the community doesn’t want it to be popular.It’s trying to expect something the rest of the world doesn’t want to do.

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9 Alister February 22, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Because this is what GNU/Linux is. Use it or not.

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10 queru May 21, 2011 at 8:27 pm

That’s why many people prefer Linux (without GNU restrictions). Many people need to work and cannot have the luxury of technicalities.

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11 Ed LaBonte September 16, 2011 at 3:31 pm

Whether or not the distribution has non-free software, it’s still GNU/Linux. Linux is just the kernel. The GNU project prefers only free software, but the os is still GNU/Linux.

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12 Viktor Lindberg February 22, 2011 at 3:22 pm

It’s not about how people code, it’s about your freedom to use your computer the way you want. The problem of drivers might seem counterintiutive in this regard, but free software distributions only choose to distribute drivers that are free software that is drivers that can be modified and redistributed by the end user to make sure the computer is in the end users controlling and not the company distributing the driver. Unfortunately very few hardware manufacturers are willing to give out the necessary documentation to leth other develop free software drivers dir their hardware thus the companies have controlling over the end users computer by controlling which code runs on it. The same is true for firmware blobs since firmware essentially runs on your computer albeit perhaps not on the CPU but on a separate chipset. The whole idea behind GNU was to make an operative system in which the actually user of the computer was in controlling of what the computer is actually doing, and thus you might have to be careful to choose hardware from companies that allow you to have full control of your computer when buying new hardware, of course some pragmatism is required and I also think that pressure should be put on the manufacturers to allow writing is free software drivers and firmware for their product, the firmware is in general already developed by them and just needs to be released under free terms.

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13 queru May 21, 2011 at 8:28 pm

Freedom? What about the freedom/choice to use closed source drivers?

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14 revoLnxt February 27, 2013 at 3:15 am

Do you even read before replying?.

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15 kro February 22, 2011 at 11:48 am

Reading “binary blob” hurts…
The first ‘b’ in “blob” (“Binary Large OBject”) already stands for “binary”.

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16 yoander February 22, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Why to called it Debian Linux? IMO if we’re going to speak about Debian we must called it Debian (for short) or Debian GNU / Linux but not Debian Linux because it’s not a correct name.

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17 nixCraft February 22, 2011 at 4:43 pm

The post has been updated.

Thanks!

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18 AnonTwo February 22, 2011 at 6:37 pm

@Viktor

While i can understand the idea of giving user’s freedom…shouldn’t they also be free to use closed source if they trust closed source? And yes,i know to an extent you do that in some cases,like Ubuntu having restricted drivers…but not in the case of these OS’s (confirm/deny?),and even then they aren’t just a simple switch on/off,making you still powerless if all you wanna do is try the OS via live CD/USB.

If it’s about freedom,shouldn’t users also be free to use closed source if they don’t wanna have to bother with the code? If they in fact trust that the companies know what they’re doing,and won’t ruin their computers with the code? Many users are perfectly fine,some in fact WANT these big companies to be running their code for them,because in fact only a minority of users even have the knowledge to deal with open source code.

At the same time,i don’t wanna outright say you should deny Open source,it has it’s benefits and i can see that. I like the idea that if you don’t like how X code works,or you think it could do better,you can change it.What i’m saying is…shouldn’t there always be a middleground? Shouldn’t the restricted drivers be pre-installed at least when trying to test an OS? Shouldn’t they at least exist on the disk for those who love the OS,but don’t hate closed source in the same manner?

I mean,Linux seems like it has the power to just install what you want anyway,right? You can still have a completely open source OS,just leave the restricted drivers somewhere for those who need them.Rather then put the pressure on users to change hardware,put the pressure on users to decide whether to install it at all. If you want,you could even just make an option in Linux saying “Hey,don’t ever ask me to install restricted drivers”.

It’s just i don’t see it being freedom without a middleground,and while i like the ones that do have a middleground,it’d be nice if they could remember to make the live CD’s work out of the box for restricted :)

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19 Sam October 7, 2011 at 12:42 am

Companies which ship non-free drivers are acting unethically. They are not honest, not trustworthy, and certainly not something you would knowingly want to buy if you understood the problem. They are denying you the ability to get fixes from third parties. They ensure that you will purchase new hardware rather than get a fix or maintenance from another company.

When people bought Microsoft Windows Vista they were forced to upgrade all sorts of hardware. From printers to sound cards. This was largely due to the fact drivers and firmware in older devices were non-free. Users could not get drivers for the new operating system. This same issue impacts free software users who purchase software or hardware dependent on non-free drivers/firmware/code.

This isn’t just Microsoft Windows Vista either. It is true of all non-free operating systems including Ubuntu, LinuxMint (especially true), Fedora, Microsoft Windows XP, Microsoft Windows 7, and others.

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20 pepazdepa March 1, 2011 at 8:29 am

ad Opera – guys before spreading bullshit read the Opera port Makefile about the applications license http://www.openbsd.org/cgi-bin/cvsweb/ports/www/opera/Makefile?rev=1.71

ad firmware – maybe you could start to think what is difference between driver and firmware, then you get a point what is blob.

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21 J Snow May 28, 2011 at 10:50 am

Ran Ubuntu for some time found it was not too bad a system. Upgraded”?”to 11.04 found it to be the worst ever I think they used the Windows ME development team.

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22 mike June 18, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Why does the text on this site go off screen and not visible readable?

http://www.cyberciti.biz/tips/best-gnu-linux-distributions.html

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23 German September 8, 2011 at 10:48 am

Man. Linux is NOT FREE. GNU IS FREE. Read more at http://www.gnu.org

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24 Sam October 7, 2011 at 12:31 am

http://www.thinkpenguin.com/ has hardware for Trisquel and other free distributions…

It would be great if all distributions moved to be binary-blob free sooner rather than later. Debian amongst others have begun to realise the problems of non-free software (they’ve always been better than others… though too) and while few are Stallman-strict in not allowing non-free software many are beginning to realise Stallman is at least partially right (admitting it or not). Non-free software is a major problem on any operating system and especially so on free software based operating systems (referring to non-free distributions here). This is not a ethical issue. It is a technical issue and the entire community free and “open source” should be able to agree on this and work together to eliminate it from acceptability.

Making non-free software and hardware more difficult or impossible to use will encourage people to purchase hardware that works with free software and invest further in free software applications.

Unfortunately most of the companies out there don’t get it or care.. this includes system76 and other popular “Linux” operations. Boycotting them would be a good start alongside the likes of other chipset manufacturers and similar.

Here is a re short list of companies products to avoid:

Devices with NVidia Graphics; good alternatives: Intel or ATI

Printers: Lexmark, Dell, Cannon, Samsung, Epson, and just about everybody else; good alternatives: Some HP models although not all.

Sound Cards: Don’t go Creative as they killed free drivers a while back; I believe all others should be OK.

MiniPCIe Wifi Cards: Anybody other than Atheros for 802.11N; the rest require non-free firmware

USB Wifi Cards: Don’t buy any 802.11N card with a chipset other than an Atheros AR9170 in it; If 802.11N is required get a Penguin 802.11N USB Wifi Card. Realtek RTL8187B is ok for 802.11G, check out the Penguin 802.11G USB Wifi Card

Notebooks: Stick with a non-MS Windows notebook. ThinkPenguin.com sells ones without MS Windows and so do others although the majority of Linux notebooks depend on non-free drivers/firmware so should be avoided. Alternatively if you check out the chipsets you can build one yourself. MSI Whitebooks, Chinese Imports, Compal, and ASI all have systems available without MS Windows although not all are GNU/Linux friendly or free so be weary if you don’t know what you are doing.

There are great alternatives for software in many cases if you look around: OpenShot for instance is a great video editor. Some programs like Evolution or Thunderbird need to be tweaked as distributions don’t have the best default configuration although are excellent (or go with web mail). Then there is LibreOffice, and others which I’m sure everybody knows about.

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25 Meh April 6, 2012 at 12:50 am

Blag rules!

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26 rrm November 2, 2012 at 8:37 pm

This whole mentality make Linux being just 1 percent of the market. If all this dick measuring contest will be put to better use or focus on one or two distros Linux will pick up. Until this stupid war stop, nothing will be accomplished and windows will be king , even after WIN8

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27 Brian November 10, 2012 at 1:55 am

I’m a casual Linux user (I also use other operating systems) one of the things that bothers me is the seeming lack of forward thinking. I have used Linux in virtual environments and for servers, but recently have looked towards oracles cloud deployment systems and asked myself, “Why isn’t true open source here yet?” I understand the difficulties inherent in trying to be all things to all people but aren’t open source developers really even looking at the possibilities of creating totally non commercial software, to then modify it for commercial use, thus enabling the community of users the widest possible advantage of use? Develop the drivers! We have clouds to deploy! And not being able to get a netbook onto the internet looks as childish as the excuses that obviously prevent us from realistically considering it viable. Use commercial drivers as the models and get us into the next age because frankly I’ve seen windows 8 and I laughed… But then when I look at the issues facing android’s use of the kernal needing to reapply for a license… I shudder to think of what might be the future. Mint incorporated Ubuntu repositories, and literally jumped past Ubuntu as the best Linux Distro this year. So some people are progressing by learning to utilize the existing tech. Lets see if 2013 hold any real surprises from the software that refuses to advance to the point of “being online.”

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28 Ivan July 30, 2013 at 4:35 pm

Freedom or not freedom? I rather learn and teach other distros that I made the move to free software/open source not because of the money… It was mainly for privacy and security. Any proprietary company (as in pharmaceutical companies) will try to patent all and get a monopoly. Then oppression will come and people will pay or DIE. In this case is information technology and future of humanity is at risk. Whether you use proper free software and struggle (even if fkn facebook doest load your vids) or protest in the streets. Geeks protesting wont look that impressive, so then go back to your keyboard and challenge the system doing what we better do.

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29 Zlatko February 25, 2014 at 2:08 am

I read all these arguments about free or not free applications used in Linux, from my point I can say this: being a microsoft user for so many years I am tired of it and trying to find something better. I have enough of those viruses and add messages and having to use several viruscheck and other programs which just slow even fastest computer to a crawl, I want to switch to something new, better.
I have no knowledge of Linux and I am planing to get me some books to learn as much I can being so busy. That is the reason I tried several versions of popular linux programs. Started with Ubuntu (hearing so much good about it) it was useless for me. Did not know how to make anything work for me except the browser and any applications I could run in the browser. Then I tried several other distros which were a little better. I like the best Linux Lite, it was the best for me so far, but I am still looking.
As I see the problem of Linux for window converts is that they do need a simple distro without need for any programing. And all applications most people use every
day, like Skype, which was for me almost impossible to install, or if it did it was so strangely deformed. While Linux community is arguing about free or not free software and trying to push their own software, Microsoft is making big money.
I think somebody should design a distro that has already loaded applications that most of general public use every day, and you know what they are. Should use free and non free software, and after it becomes popular you could design your own free software and replace non free ones. This way everybody would be happy, while you Linux expert can continue develop your software as much you experts like and enjoy it. For a distro acceptable for windows convert you could charge some minor ammount like 10 or 20$ and it would give you more incentives to make it even better. This is my opinion that this way Linux for general public would be in great demand. Otherwise linux will continue to be popular only to a few Linux experts.

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