Now that open source has largely overcome its earlier problems with limited application availability – there's practically no area today that is not served reasonably well by free software – the remaining challenge is hardware support. That's obviously harder to resolve than the earlier software dearth, since it depends not on the willingness of coders to roll up their sleeves and write stuff, but on hardware manufacturers to release either open source drivers, or at least full specs for their kit. But even here, open source continues to demolish the barriers.
One of the most important hold-outs was the wifi chipset vendor Atheros. This was actually quite serious, because good wireless support is one of the first things that general users look for. Indeed, wifi functionality has long been a key test for portables running GNU/Linux – one that many big names have failed.
So news that Atheros has seen the light is most welcome:
Madwifi.org, an open-source developer group that has long worked on open-source drivers for Atheros WI-Ffi chipsets, announced that Atheros released the new driver, ath9k, underneath the liberal ISC license. Moreover, according to the Madwifi programmers, “This driver is aimed at inclusion to the Linux kernel and supports all Atheros IEEE 802.11n devices. This represents a major shift in terms of support from Atheros with respect to Linux.”
It's significant in several ways. First, because it adds yet more pressure to the few remaining hold-outs against providing full support for GNU/Linux: when so many other manufacturers have opened up, the hardware curmudgeons being to look downright silly. Secondly, this is important because the release is explicitly targeting inclusion in the Linux kernel – which means that wireless should work straight out of the box. And finally, there is this:
This change by Atheros isn’t too much of a surprise because the company just hired two of Madwifi’s top developers: Luis Rodriguez and Jouni Malinen.
That's a nice compliment to the quality of the open source programming: Atheros recognises that it's easier to hire the people working on its hardware in the free software community, rather than try to train up its own engineers. In addition, it's a great signal to the open source world, because it says that in addition to all the kudos you will get by producing good code, it may well land you a nice job, too – which is particularly handy in increasingly difficult economic conditions.