In last week's hardware column, I discussed the status of Linux hardware support, and the dismal efforts some companies were giving to get their products supported. In response to this article, I received some new information from someone at VA Linux Systems' multimedia and graphics engineering group. (Disclosure: NewsForge is owned by OSDN, a division of VA Linux systems.)
Last week, I discussed how 3DFX had only partially functional drivers for their Voodoo5 boards. The drivers only run one CPU and do not support FSAA, a key feature of this new board. This essentially limits the board to Voodoo3 levels of performance, not something people who just shelled out $300 are eager to find. However, this isn't an attempt by 3DFX to rip off Linux users, but rather it is a result of a lack of devotion to Linux.
Typically, a video board company will have more than 30 people working on Windows drivers for its products. This is because video drivers are complicated beasts, and can require a lot of man hours to develop. However, when a company hires VA Linux to write video drivers, it typically hires only one or two people. Now, imagine if you will, trying to develop an equally complex video driver with only 10% of the typical team. Doesn't sound fun, does it?
Their are several reasons for this problem. First, Linux market share isn't at the level it needs to be for companies to be able to devote equal time to development of drivers for it. That costs money, and that's the first order of business at most companies, making a profit.
What many companies don't seem to realize is that when they are licensing DDKs (driver development kits) from Microsoft, on which they build their Windows drivers, they are paying for the development of the graphics/driver infrastructure which they are using. VA's multimedia and graphics division is also working on such an infrastructure, except without as much funding as Microsoft. This common codebase for Linux drivers would allow cheaper, faster and better Linux drivers, as it would be funded by the various graphics companies, and would have that many more people to work on it.
It would seem that there is indeed hope on the horizon, with more drivers coming out all the time and more companies embracing open source with their hardware products, but the battle is far from over. As Linux gains more marketshare and more companies demand support for it, we will see a surge in Linux support. Perhaps by this time next year I'll be able to complain about the lack of quality Windows drivers for most hardware.