Saturday 1 October 2011

Proprietary Code - Where do we draw the line?

I can't help being amused when users say they chose not to use a specific Open Source distribution because it contains binary drivers and hence is not totally free.  I too really care that we have software freedom and try to work towards a totally free Operating System but where do we draw the line?

Some users state that they won't touch a specific brand of hardware such as Wireless or Video because one has to use a binary driver or that it contains firmware that is not Open Source.  While this is an admirable philosophical stance it has its blind-spots. For example,  laptops contain Embedded Controllers to do a variety of hardware interfacing tasks - do we refuse to use these laptops because the firmware in the Embedded Controllers are not Open Source?  Or how about the ACPI AML code that appears in the DSDT and SSDTs - so should we boot the machine with ACPI disabled because this code is not Open Source?

Taking it further, what about the Microcode inside the processor?  This binary blob is loaded by BIOS updated by the Operating System to fix subtle features in Microprocessors post-release.  So, should we stop using this because Intel won't supply us the source?

So at what point do we stop using a system because it is not fully Open Source?  OK, so I've taking the argument to its logical conclusion to stretch the point.   I fully understand that it is totally desirable to avoid using Closed Source binary blobs where possible and trying to keep a system totally Open Source keeps us honest.  However, sometimes I find the purest viewpoint rather blinkered if it refuses to use a specific distribution when their machine is riddled with Closed Source binary firmware blobs.  Perhaps they should start working on the BIOS vendors and Intel to release their code..

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