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Wednesday, 30 January 2008 16:52

Making hardware vendors love open source

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Reverse-engineering open source drivers for hardware devices will only reduce the pressure on manufacturers to provide such drivers, Dirk Hohndel told an audience at the Australian national Linux conference today.

Hohndel, who works for Intel as the chief of technology for Linux and open source, spoke on the topic "Make hardware vendors love open source".

He made one telling point at the start of the talk: you can debate all you like about getting open source drivers for hardware, but finally only money talks.

Open source had a tremendous impact on hardware vendors, he said, simply because in today's world billions ("and that's with a big 'B'") of dollars are spent on making hardware that ends up being used running open source software.

One statistic he cited was that 10 per cent of the money in IT was spent on mega-data centres used by big companies like Yahoo! and Google - and, apart from Microsoft, all were building on open source.

And another was equally impressive - a third of all wireless access points are running Linux. However, the fact that Linux was running on such a large number of hardware devices did not mean that the vendors had to understand open source.

Hohndel said it was difficult to quantify how much money a company would lose by not using open source. However, it was possible to put a figure on what it would cost a proprietary vendor to open up its IP to the world - and many companies valued their IP at a significant percentage of their market cap.

Hence, rather than release documentation that would make it possible for open source drivers to be written, vendors preferred to either completely ignore Linux or only release binary drivers and rely on the community to reverse-engineer the hardware in order to create open source drivers.


Vendors could take a hit to their image due to venturing into open source; in this connection, he mentioned the recent case of the Asus eeePC which runs a Linux distribution. A story made the rounds of the web that Asus was violating the GPL, something the company had done unintentionally. But the news spread and Asus' image suffered as a result.

Hohndel also pointed out that at times the process of reverse-engineering was fraught with danger. He cited the case of the Matrox Millennium graphics card from about a dozen years ago where the reverse-engineered driver ended up frying the card. The vendor had to come to the rescue and provide the necessary documentation to limit the damage.

Preventing damage was one thing to which companies gave a lot of thought and one reason why they were willing to go the open source route.

Hohndel was blunt about the real reason: "The main reason for going open source is to make a buck," he said, adding "even the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child project) is in this to make money."

To underline his point, he said only money talked - one had to translate the "we want" (what the consumers want) into "they want" (what the companies want).

One way to increase the pressure on vendors for open source drivers was to make a bid to increase the marketshare of Linux. "As Linux has 25 to 28 per cent marketshare in the server space, talking to hardware people is somewhat useful," he said, "but on the desktop Linux has only 0.8 per cent. And even if the eeePC sells as many millions as it is projected to during this year, the marketshare of Linux will only double."

He said consumers must signal that they did not want Windows on their PCs and the message must be loud enough - say, by getting a group together and making a request for PCs with Linux or else PCs with no operating system.

Such statistics, of groups making such requests, were more important than commonly realised; when cited by marketing people, they often influenced decisions made by companies.


A second way, Hohndel said, was by helping people like kernel developer Greg Kroah-Hartman who made an offer in January last year that kernel developers would develop free drivers for manufacturers who provided the necessary technical details. For example, there were many small hardware vendors in Taiwan who could not afford to write Linux drivers, he said.

He cautioned against public calls for boycotts, saying that it was more likely to invite retaliatory legal action rather than achieve any positive outcome.

Thirdly, Hohndel touched on documentation, pointing out that there were more chips produced today which did not have programmer's manuals than ever before. They were done by small teams and in many cases the chip designer, driver author and firmware author sat together, consulted and then the driver was written.

A solution to this was for the vendor to create documentation by proxy - do a low-spec driver and publish the details as open source. The community could then engage and write the needed proper drivers.

Hohndel touched on intellectual property concerns, pointing out that if company-critical IP was revealed by explaining to people how to use a device, then something was wrong with the definition of the IP. But, convincing hardware people that publishing a programmer's manual would not infringe on their IP was very difficult, he added.

He said he used the example of the 386 when trying to explain to his own company how valuable this kind of documentation was to software writers. Two Intel employees - both now in high positions in the company - published a comprehensive book a long time back on programming the 386 and it was this documentation which enabled Linus Torvalds to write the Linux kernel.

Asking whether they had done the right thing generally helped others to see things his way, he said.

Hohndel also discussed regulatory concerns arising from the fact that some devices - graphics cards and wireless cards - tend to be a combination of hardware and software.

Some features for a hardware device could be provided through software and thus it became part of the driver; no company would be willing to reveal proprietary algorithms that went into the software and gave it the edge over a competitor, he added.

He urged open source developers to encourage the right behaviour - "there needs to be more of a penalty for doing the wrong things. We are so willing to work on our own to fix a company's problem. That is stupid, dumb," he said. The only way was to get documentation by the methods he had outlined.

"Engage and listen, offer to help, offer to educate," he concluded.


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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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