For a number of reasons -- mostly cost and its presence in emerging markets -- VIA has long been the graphics hardware of choice for Linux users. However, the company's drivers have been closed source, and there has long been friction between VIA and the open source community, which has been successful in recent years in opening the drivers primarily through efforts such as Unichrome.
Ivor Hewitt, one of four core developers behind the Unichrome driver that provides open source support for the VIA/S3G Unichrome graphics controller, said VIA's history on the matter illustrates a lackluster approach and rocky relationship with open source developers. Hewitt, who began reverse-engineering the ddmpeg library after he became frustrated working with VIA's limited code and API releases, said VIA's open source plan has missed the point.
"Attempts to discuss these problems were met with silence or simply statements that they had released their API and would not be providing any more information," Hewitt said in an email to NewsForge. "They didn't even provide a reference manual for their proprietary API."
Hewitt explained that after attempts to work with VIA and the company's code, open source developers chose to drop the ddmpeg interface and extend the standard XvMC interface used by Nvidia to provide MPEG acceleration. Use of the standard API proved fruitful, as illustrated by the MPlayer interface, which took only two days to be implemented.
Hewitt -- who also complained the VIA open source package contains a non-free, opaque binary library that encapsulates its MPEG interface -- said that although VIA's source code releases are a recognition of the significant Linux market, they miss the point of community development.
"It provides hope in the fact that it shows that VIA now considers the Linux market to be an important one," he wrote. "On the other hand, it is disheartening when I hear statements from VIA saying, 'We hope this will encourage open source developers to support our platform.' Open source developers have been supporting their platform as best they can. VIA, however, has simply not been engaging with the community. VIA refuses to release programming specifications for their MPEG chipsets; these have to be reverse-engineered to work, which is simply crazy. It is a complete waste of time and effort. I think we simply need to look at VIA's actions to date to decide whether they have a constructive, cohesive open source policy."
"I wouldn't describe it as a marketing scam, but they just seem to be getting it so wrong," Hewitt continued. "Perhaps it is fear of getting involved and losing control, and they won't retain complete control of all code written for their platform. This really is missing the point of open source. For example, take their actions over Xine and MPlayer -- they forked the entire codebase of both projects simply to add support for the ddmpeg library. They didn't get involved in the projects, they didn't contribute to the mailing lists, and then they make a bold press release announcement saying they have contributed to the open source community by providing an 'enhanced' version. This is not the right way to contribute to the open source community."
Hewitt also expressed some concern that Unichrome will now be facing competition from a major corporation that has technical specs, a large team of developers, and marketing power.
"How are we going make our voices heard when VIA up 'til now has always tried to steer customers to their binary drivers and will now try to steer them to their source drivers instead?" he said.
Nevertheless, Hewitt described Unichrome as a healthy project, and indicated the community will likely find the open source effort more advantageous.
"I don't think people will choose the Unichrome project driver simply because it is completely open source," he said. "I think they will make that decision based on the fact that there is a vibrant developer community around our driver, there are mailing lists they can discuss problems in, and they can clearly see all the changes we make to our code and why."
'This is not open source'
Luc Verhaegen, who started the Unichrome Project, echoed Hewitt and argued the code recently released by VIA has been available for quite some time. "All it did was drop the request form nonsense," Verhaegen said in an email to NewsForge.
That "nonsense," as Verhaegen described it, has been accompanied by VIA ignoring all X-related work and making "quite irregular releases," making the source code available through an Open Source Developers (OSD) request form.
"Here, they had people request source, after which some drone reviewed the application and could accept it or reject it without ever getting word back (which has happened several times)," he wrote. "This is not open source."
Verhaegen said after his verbosity on the OSD, he was able to connect with VIA's Joseph Chan -- who is part of the software development team in VIA's Taipei office -- to fix some dogging issues: fixing of non-free licenses; offering tarballs for direct download to free up admin support on Via Arena, where Verhaegen was banned for using the words "Linux, buzzword, marketing, and scam" in a question, he said; and change to a disclaimer issue with VIA's version of the MIT license, which Verhaegen said is only partially fixed.
"For any new file we drag in, we need to start begging again," he said.
Verhaegen -- who called VIA's latest press release "a half truth" and "hugely blown out of proportion" -- added that VIA is further antagonizing the community by trying to regulate the distribution of source code it claims to have opened, and by abstaining from participation in active open source projects.
"VIA keeps on ignoring open source developers and users, and keeps on forking highly active and high-profile open source projects," he said. "There is no help for anyone on VIA Arena, especially not if you happen to use anything but the latest Windows XP (beware if you use anything but Internet Explorer). There is and will be no change in VIA's behavior towards the free and open source world."
Next: VIA responds
In response to points raised by the Unichrome developers, VIA Arena Editor Fiona Gatt said in an email to NewsForge the goal of the VIA VeMP and VeXP players -- described as "blindly forked to support binary nonsense" by Verhaegen -- was to produce players that could demonstrate software optimized for use with the MPEG-2/4 hardware acceleration in VIA's CLE266 and CN400 chipsets.
"Since then, due in part to the feedback from the open source community, the VeXP project leaders have recently contacted the Xine project to check in VIA's source code," Gatt wrote. "We are willing to discuss changes and requirements with those developers. We have listened to the feedback from developers in the Unichrome Project and users who use their software and we're making every effort to improve the way we work with them."
As for the disclaimer described and criticized by Verhaegen, Gatt said the disclaimer is being changed with the next release.
Responding to the criticism that VIA's open source efforts are missing the point, Gatt indicated overall response to the company's moves has been positive.
"Whilst there are still some improvements to be made, the open source community has in fact responded with great thanks and enthusiasm to recent efforts by VIA and changes to communications and types of support provided," she said. "There have been issues in the past, but we have listened to feedback and acted upon it and we will continue to do so."
Free development and opportunity
Gartner Research Vice President Martin Reynolds said VIA's move was made to leverage the free support that is taking place around the company's products.
"It makes it easier to get people to come and develop on your platform if the drivers are available, particularly VIA because they really go to peripheral applications and it's important to have access to modify or change them," he said.
Reynolds agreed that VIA and other companies typically assess the value of the intellectual property at stake and the potential support and market as a result of opening it.
"It makes it easier for VIA to keep these things going and keeping them bug free," he said. "It was a case where it was ideal for open sourcing, unlike Transmeta and their transaction layer. They won't open that because it doesn't help them. It's usually a goal to get more customers and the support of developers."
Reynolds said open source developers and users can look forward to such open source releases only when the company stands to gain from them.
"It's more for their convenience," he said. "There's not going to be this huge rush to open everything up. Only where it makes market sense."
Long Linux relationship, list of complaints
Mercury Research president and graphics chip industry analyst Dean McCarron said he did not see VIA's open source efforts as intended to help out open source developers using their products. Instead, the analyst said the company has seen the support it is getting from the open source community and when looking at what it had to lose in the intellectual property of the drivers, decided the move would be beneficial.
"They're getting what amounts to free support and they're saying, 'Let's not penalize these guys. Let's let them help us,'" McCarron said. "Having the hardware interfaces under cover is a challenge for open source groups like X.org and XFree86 to support. There's difficulty there."
The analyst said the open source driver effort and Linux market that VIA is trying to serve are really one in the same, and may have been underestimated by VIA. "The existence of the groups is indicative of the demand," he said. "In some cases, they were maybe not aware how much demand there was."
McCarron said the growth of open source operating systems such as Linux and FreeBSD will force more, similar open sourcing of drivers, but the trend is unlikely to reach the top of the market, where Nvidia and ATI support open source systems, but keep their solutions proprietary.
"What I suspect will happen is certain portions of the hardware interface will get exposed -- maybe the 2D interface, but for the hard core 3D, there's so much intellectual property wrapped up in that, it's very unlikely that piece will end up being open sourced."
Likening the situation to Intel's forced support for wireless Linux -- which has improved dramatically in the last year with open source driver programs supported by the chip giant -- McCarron said Linux users will get more support and more source code, but there will always be proprietary catches, particularly in cases where the company cannot divulge intellectual property based on contract, acquisition, or other stipulation.
"For the purists, there's the issue that you don't necessarily get a direct plug to established organizations like X.org," McCarron said.