The Last Mile is Always the Hardest by John Sullivan
Software licenses and patents aren't the only ways proprietary software vendors can restrict the freedoms of computer users. A key component of our overall campaign for software freedom is making sure that the hardware we buy is not an obstacle to the exercise of our freedoms. We've made it almost all the way to easily available fully free systems, but it's still going to take some work to finish this last last mile.
When purchasing a computer, free software supporters don't want to buy a proprietary operating system license, like Windows Vista or Mac OS X. We can always reject the license, removing the proprietary operating system and installing a free one -- but this is a nuisance and puts money in the pockets of people who work against our freedom. Sometimes a refund can (and should!) be obtained for the cost of the proprietary license -- but this is another nuisance and doesn't communicate a clear signal to the vendor, who remains under the impression that they sold a copy of Windows or Mac OS X.
Because computers are expected to be sold and used with proprietary operating systems in this way, free software users can end up with computers that aren't well-supported by the free software they want to run. In particular they can end up with network and video cards that require proprietary drivers. This is a problem even with companies like Dell and Lenovo that are now selling systems preinstalled with GNU/Linux. Instead of choosing hardware that does not require proprietary drivers, they have chosen to just provide the proprietary drivers.
Fortunately, we've made progress in this area. Los Alamos Computers has been working in cooperation with the FSF to offer systems that come preinstalled with a free operating system like gNewSense and fully working hardware. This is exciting by itself, but they are also donating a portion of those sales to the FSF to further support free software. We will be working with more vendors to follow their example.
Wireless networking has in the past been a real headache for people who want to have a fully free system. There are a number of cards that are supported under GNU/Linux and they often have drivers released under the GPL or another free software license -- but those drivers depend on chunks of proprietary binary code. To avoid these binary blobs, users have thus far been limited to a handful of chipsets, primarily those manufactured by Ralink using the rt2500 driver.
We now have an additional option in the ath5k driver, which is descended from Madwifi, OpenHAL, and OpenBSD's ar5k. This driver supports several Atheros wireless cards without requiring any binary blobs, and is included in Linux as of version 2.6.25. The Software Freedom Law Center reviewed the driver in September 2007 and verified that it is free.
In the world of video drivers. 3D acceleration has long been a sore spot for anyone not using Intel hardware. But late last year ATI announced that it would be releasing code and specifications to assist the community in development of fully capable free software drivers for all of its newer Radeon chipsets. Based on steps they have already taken, it does appear that they intend to follow through on this commitment. VIA very recently made a similar announcement, but has yet to take action. Widespread free software drivers supporting 3D acceleration will undoubtedly help free software games and graphics applications, which have been notable weak spots in the past.
Drivers aren't the only remaining concern -- other than the One Laptop Per Child XO (which unfortunately has a proprietary wireless driver), there are still no laptops or desktops readily available with a free BIOS. With the help of a grant from the Mozilla Foundation, the FSF has continued working to help promote and support projects like coreboot, which provide a free software BIOS replacement. Thanks to the work of FSF sysadmin and coreboot contributor Ward Vandewege, we now have free BIOS desktops alongside the free BIOS servers running in the FSF office. Silicon Mechanics has also started selling a server pre-flashed with coreboot, and we are hopeful that other vendors will follow their lead. You can help this campaign by sending positive feedback to companies making such moves, and by being critical of companies like Intel that continue obstructing progress.
There is a lot to keep up with, but the FSF hardware database has been expanding as a resource to consult before purchasing a system or accessories. You can find valuable information there about which exact chipsets and models are known to work with fully free GNU/Linux systems. The information comes from the testing we do at the FSF and from people around the world who send us their working hardware configurations. We can always use more volunteers to help us process the information we receive. If you have some time and would like to help by maintaining a section of the database, please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Getting commonly available hardware to be fully compatible with free software is a critical component of the FSF's mission, and it's a great way you can make a difference. We're almost there -- we just need to get that last mile.