April 5, 2005 4:00 AM PDT
Battle brews over unlocking PC secrets
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replacement, with its own set of drivers to turn on elements of the PC such as the processor, based on EFI. Committing it to open source means others will be able to download it from a Web site called TianoCore.org and use it to make products under the Berkley Software Distribution, or BSD, license. The BSD will allow anyone who uses it to change it and create products out of it. But it does not require they provide the changes they made to others via open source, which provides the means to help companies protect intellectual property.
The effort by Intel creates a framework for a BIOS replacement, and thus could become the basis for free BIOSes. But it leaves the work of writing the code that initializes PC components to the downloader. One licensee likened it to having to build a race car. Intel, he said, provides race rules and the car's frame but leaves licensees to do their own engine, suspension, body work and other elements if they want to enter a race.'Evil' companies?
Stallman argues instead that Intel is not doing enough and BIOS makers are not needed. Instead, he wants information.
"We're not wanting to do anything with the BIOSes from Phoenix or any of the others," he said. "We're not asking them to do anything, any more than we're asking Microsoft to do anything. These (companies) are evil. You can't expect them to do anything just because you ask them to. Our goal is to escape from them."
Thus, the free BIOS effort, as Stallman sees it happening, will essentially bypass traditional BIOS makers and instead focus on appealing to hardware manufacturers. The campaign will ask those companies, including PC makers and motherboard makers, to make available specifications on their products to allow free software writers to create BIOSes for them.
Stallman also dismisses rebuttals that free BIOS would compromise a PC's security, stability or reveal companies' proprietary chip, motherboard or other product information.
"Each one could be saying, 'If the others knew what we were doing, it would help them tremendously.' It might be true in a few cases, but it's impossible in all cases," Stallman said. "They can't all be sitting on secrets that are beyond the ken of their competitors. They can't all be the ones that know more than everybody else."
Moreover, detailed chip and motherboard information will not be required to create a free BIOS, he said. Instead, free BIOS makers would need access to closely held instructions, such as how a BIOS loads and how it initializes various devices inside a PC.
A free BIOS would also help circumvent, if necessary, digital-rights management, allowing people to run any software they choose on their PCs. In theory, the BIOS can be used to aid security technology, as it initializes hardware such as security chips.
Although BIOS makers and Intel say the BIOS' role is limited to helping get those elements of a system up and running along with the rest of it, a BIOS writer could write around them in order to shut them off, if needed, Stallman said.
"DRM is theft," he said. "The idea of the free software movement is you should be in control of your own computer. Treacherous competing (his term for so-called trusted computing) is a scheme to make sure you're not in control."
Ultimately, the free BIOS would emulate software such as the LinuxBIOS-- a free BIOS that's already in existence for Linux, but does not work with a large number of PCs--on a much broader scale.
"It's generally known that free software is very secure and very reliable," Stallman said. "If there's a bug in the BIOS, the only thing that will happen is some part of your machine won't work and that bug would be quite noticeable and it would be fixed, presuming that the information was available."
But that's the rub. Detailed specifications on cutting-edge PC hardware may be tough to come by. The information given to BIOS makers now is granted under nondisclosure and it's not clear whether companies such as Intel, PC makers like Dell, or motherboard makers would reveal even a little bit of information.
"You'd need to know the confidential information about the chips to write" a free BIOS, Insyde Software's Joseph said. Right now, "that info is only available on old hardware that nobody really cares about anymore."
That, however, won't stop Stallman from asking.
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