What if Hardware Vendors are Trapped Too?

by chromatic

Want some frustration? Buy a piece of hardware with "Linux support" and try to use it on anything besides x86 GNU/Linux. If you're fortunate enough to choose a device for which there exists free drivers, you'll have much more luck. Often, recompiling is all that's necessary--and if you use a modern distribution, you may not even have to compile it yourself.

Otherwise, you may be in for days of fun trying to explain that the Linux kernel and almost any piece of software you can run on x86 works just fine on PPC, or that FreeBSD or OpenSolaris or all of the other open and stable free operating systems can do much the same.

It's easy to make the argument that supporting multiple operating systems and hardware platforms with source code (or better, specifications) requires little work on the part of hardware vendors. I've made just that argument. Customers don't pay for drivers--we pay for the hardware.

Some companies do release open drivers and, perhaps more importantly, open specifications for their hardware. These vendors deserve tremendous praise.

What about the other vendors? Let us assume that they are familar with the potential benefits of open source development models and that they appreciate the value of a larger market not tied to a single platform or OS vendor. Assuming this good faith from vendors, there must exist some compelling contrary reason not to provide open specifications or driver source code.

An oft-cited reason is the existence of nebulous "intellectual property concerns". Yet as the Free Software Foundation points out, using the phrase intellectual property often confuses the issue.

Perhaps disentangling all of the possible types of "IP" will provide insight.


Aristotle Pagaltzis
2007-01-30 19:01:43

I guess Greg Kroah-Hartman's explicit offer of Free Linux Driver Development on the LKML is particularly interesting in this context.

2007-02-01 13:18:59
That was an interesting synchronicity, Aristotle. However, Greg's offer is, more or less, just an official (and very pleasantly worded) presentation of a long-term Linux kernel policy.

Maybe we're all trying to present a more positive face toward vendors.

Stuart Ellis
2007-02-01 13:50:46
This is a great overview of the situation. The only other issue that I would add to the list is corporate inertia - changing an existing policy requires internal advocates as well as external ones. It may be that some hardware vendors don't have people that are aware of the issues in positions of influence, and aren't being pressed by larger partners or customers to rethink their position.

Which I find a bit troubling after the Sony rootkit incident. Vendors that insist that their customers run closed source code in kernel space are actually asking for a lot of trust, and organizations that handle sensitive data should probably be asking more questions about proprietary hardware drivers.

2007-02-01 15:16:50
@Stuart, thanks for the additions. I'd forgotten temporarily about the issue of sensitive data and unauditable components. That should be an important concern.
Aristotle Pagaltzis
2007-02-02 16:45:17
Yes, I know it's nothing new. It just hadn't been stated this explicitly, nay, bluntly, before.
2007-02-05 18:16:34
One issue which never seems to be raised is the fact that in most cases the hardware vendor, who designs and markets the final assembly, doesn't own the rights to the register specs for the ASICs that they use in their design. In many cases, they have nothing more than a binary license to the drivers.

The companies that must be convinced to open their specs are not the Belkins and EVGAs of the world, but the chip vendors such as Philips, ST and nVidia.

The chip vendors see their customer as being the board vendor, and see no direct benefit to signing up their support organizations to work with people not directly related to product orders.

If there is truly a market for Linux hardware with open source drivers, there should be no reason to just run repurposed Windows hardware. There is always room in the marked for innovative companies--instead of complaining, form a company to build the hardware, make the business case to the chip vendor for releasing open source drivers based on their specs, and do something about it!

2007-02-05 21:57:33
In addition to the artificial distinction between high and low end hardware products which may differ only in software or "a single register", there's the issue of OEM versus retail packaging -- with different pricing and different parties responsible for end-user support. Open source would make it harder to charge extra for support on a higher-priced package. Not that there's much support to be had...
2007-02-08 13:53:10
@chromatic, regarding "I wonder if my now-expired amateur radio license would have given me permission to use higher powered devices on wireless networking frequencies..."

Assuming your expired US amateur radio license were Technician class or above, you would have been authorized to use up to 1500 watts (and high gain antennas) on, for example, particular channels of the 2.4 GHz 802.11b/g band. Of course, you would have had to comply with FCC Part 97 regulations, including station identification.

2007-02-10 13:25:56
Interesting article. One thing to keep in mind is that there is a lot of hardware out there with open drivers, but it is nearly impossible to find that information. There are bits and scraps all over the internet, but no single comprehensive resource. The driver issue would not be such a big deal if we had easy access to that information. I.e., print out the list of video cards with open drivers, go to Circuit City, buy something on the list. Outside of printers, we don't have such a resource. I recently bought a TV tuner and got screwed by buying one without Linux support.
2007-11-04 09:39:48
... sadly, you're right on all counts, they're deathly afraid of a "true level playing field" where everyone can see if they are true or false,...cheating, or honest,... and nobody wants to be in that position.

-But then again this just begs that question ?,

"What in the heck are the chip-makers in the business of making chips for in the first place !?!?!?"

...and I ______bet "... you just can't eat one..."