Is the Lack of Open Source Drivers Driving You Mad?

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One of the interesting aspects of tracking the rise of open source has been to note how the barriers to its wider use have fallen one by one. Issues such as scalability, applications availability and now usability are all well on the way to being tackled. So far as I can see, the one really big outstanding obstacle is open source hardware drivers, or rather the lack of them.

The problem is that open source hackers can write cool code until the cow comes home, but if the PCs that people buy won't run GNU/Linux properly for want of decent drivers, there's no way that they'll switch, and so none of that cool code is going to get used.

Recently, there have been some signs that this final impediment may be overcome too. For example, at the Linux Foundation Summit, some of the most important hardware manufacturers took an important step forward in this area:

One-third of the Summit attendees participated in the Linux Foundation’s fifth Desktop Architects’ Meeting. In Austin, leading computer manufacturers Dell, HP, Lenovo, and many others met with the desktop community to collaborate and optimize Linux for their new desktop and ultra-mobile products. A key result from the meeting was that these OEM vendors reported that they will encourage chipset and other component vendors to provide open source drivers for Linux. The companies announced on stage that they will now include wording in their hardware procurement processes to “strongly encourage” the delivery of open source drivers for transparent integration into the Linux kernel. Asustek Computer, Inc., manufacturer of the popular Linux-based Eee PC, is also encouraging its hardware suppliers to provide open source drivers for Linux. VIA Technology also announced the opening of their drivers and better support for the open source community at the Summit.

Now, “strongly encourage” is hardly “require”, but it's certainly going in the right direction, and the companies involved are undeniably heavy hitters. Another straw in the wind was provided by Creative Labs, which has finally released some beta drivers for its Sound Blaster X-Fi series sound cards. That might sound a small victory, but if the short history of free software shows anything, it is that such small wins cumulatively add up to very big shifts.

Update: And with stunning good timing, a press release has just arrived from VIA Technologies, Inc, "a leading innovator of power efficient x86 processor platforms", announcing

the launch of a beta version of the VIA Linux Portal as part of an initiative designed to extend collaboration with the Open Source community.