May 2, 2008

Computer makers push device builders for Linux-compatible hardware

Author: Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

For years, device and peripheral builders could get away with ignoring the Linux desktop market. It was too small to matter, they would say. Things have changed. At the Linux Foundation meeting in Austin, Texas, last month, major PC vendors ASUS, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Lenovo said they would be telling their chipset, component, and peripheral OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) that they were going to demand Linux-compatible hardware from them.

It's one thing when Linux users ask for support; it's an entirely different thing when multi-billion-dollar companies demand it. This is an offer that the OEMs can't refuse.

To be precise, the companies announced during the meeting that they would start including wording in their hardware procurement processes to "strongly encourage" the delivery of open source drivers. Off the record, several of the PC makers said that they would be going further still. In their next round of OEM contracts, they intend to insert language that will require OEMs to deliver equipment either with Linux drivers or with open APIs (application programming interfaces) so it will be easy to build Linux drivers.

Some companies, such as VIA Technologies, a board and chip vendor, didn't need the encouragement of the big PC vendors. VIA announced at the meeting that it would be open-sourcing drivers for all its equipment. During the "We're Shipping Linux on PCs -- Now What?" panel, Timothy Chen, special assistant to the president of VIA, said, "VIA hadn't been doing much [in opening up] ... it's been hard for the company to embrace open source, but at the end of the month you'll see us opening up."

VIA has kept its promise. On April 30, VIA opened its VIA Linux Portal Web site to the public. As its first offering, VIA has released binary graphics drivers for the VIA CN896 digital media IGP chipset for the Ubuntu 8.04 and SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 SP 1 Linux distributions. According to the company, it will release these drivers' documentation and source code over the coming weeks, followed by official forums and bug tracking. VIA intends to stick to a regular release schedule so that its drivers will stay in sync with major kernel Linux distribution releases.

Sources close to the major Wi-Fi silicon makers indicate that they too will be providing at least binary Linux drivers. Executives at both Atheros Communications and Broadcom Corp. have said privately that they plan on changing their ways about supporting Linux. This change is being driven both by the major PC vendors' support for Linux and the fact that Intel's Wi-Fi chip support for Linux is beginning to nibble away at their Wi-Fi business.

It is also noteworthy that Luis R. Rodriguez, a leading developer on the ath5K reverse-engineered, open source Atheros driver project, announced on April 15 that Atheros has hired him "as a full time employee, as a software engineer, to help them with their goals and mission to get every device of Atheros supported upstream in the Linux kernel."

If these trends continue, we may see a day when Linux desktop users can simply assume that any device they buy will support Linux. That's an offer no Linux desktop fan could refuse.

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