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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118 comments

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Evilness and no-cost software
What makes companies like Microsoft and Phoenix "Evil" and groups like the FSF not? Perhaps it is the "Donate" tab on their site that defaults to $100? I always find it funny people who go on about no-cost and free software as often they are suported by the donations of a few. True free software is rare, my favourite example is www.analogx.com. No donate button, no ads, no "professional" versions and no guilt trips.
Posted by Andrew J Glina (1673 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The "Consumers" DON"T CARE!
Just a bunch of self righteous technical type folks that somehow think that want to "rage against the Machine". I am a professional programmer using both Java & .Net. I don't give a hoot who writes the BIOS and if I can see the source code. I have plenty of my own to worry about. Besides, ALL large companies are "evil", not just the select few tech companies that the open/free/untested/hence crappy software advocates target.
Posted by TheMidnightCoder (61 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Richard Stallman is a loon.
Get a real cause Richard. Maybe protesting off shore oil drilling or something. You're not saving the world here.
Posted by (8 comments )
Reply Link Flag
WOW! What about the Lobor Theory of Value?
Wow! Does this debate not get more and more interesting and intriguing as the secrets underlying the PC continue to emerge. With the emphases to be apportioned to the various components, namely - RAM, ROM, NET BIOS and BIOS as in the case of the current article - along with the reference to the question of "Intellectual Property" issues... then one really needs to consider the question of the "Labor Theory of Value" as expounded by Marxists economic theoreticians - Why not "To each, according to his/her ability".
Posted by (187 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What about the Processor Microcode???
OH NO! You mean you don't have all of the code that is running your system? Oh MY GOD!...Get a life dude, do you realize how much embedded code their is in your chipsets and processors alone? How about you NICs embedded code or your sound chips embedded code.
It's a CIA plot dude. Make sure that you have your aluminum foil hat on at all times so they can't reprogram your mind as we all know it's definitely open source.

Fred Dunn
Posted by fred dunn (793 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Free BIOS = Free Citizen
A user-controllable free BIOS is more important now that we are seeing copyright law being mightily abused to control how we choose to access software and content.

All previous laws in all other areas may have outlawed certain activities, but never was the principle ever enshrined that the choice to obey or violate should itself be extinguished--until these dark days of copy locks and the DMCA.

And yet this is is exactly the way predatory corporate interests are absuing copyright, in terms of "Activation" and soon hardware-based software and content locks. This is a trend that lawmakers should stop in its tracks before it gets out of hand. Supreme Court guys, listen up -- you gotta stop this nonsense.

The first principle of a free society is that the governed consent to be governed. There can be no consent when there is no choice in so doing, as is the case with the DMCA, secret BIOS systems, and so forth.

Lawmakers need to take action soon to modify copyright and patent law to specify that no lock mechanism, whether it be software- or hardware-based, may have the effect of preventing the user from using software fully, modifying software fully, or using hardware fully, or modifying hardware fully, and that further prevents the use of license terms that control or direct the user in ways unrelated to the basic licensed use itself.
Posted by PolarUpgrade (103 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Bah...shudup!
Keep the bios the way it is. And go wash your clothes, if you dont have anything else to do!
Posted by Mark_Smith (85 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Disneyland should be an open-park.
Disneyland should put all the rides outside the gates so they everyone can have access to them.

Oh and I want the blueprints and a wrench so I can make some changes... for the benefit of everyone.
Get Real!

If you don't like protected software, don't USE it. Make your own (of course it will be better, right) and give it away free for the benefit of us all.
Posted by (6 comments )
Reply Link Flag
TODAYS BIOS TOO SIMPLE.
BIOS THAT GOES BEYOND ALLOWING MYSELF TO ADJUST WHERE O/S IS LOADED FROM WOULD HELP, THEN EACH HD PLUS CD INPUT COULD DISPLAY ALL KNOW O/S LOCATED ANYWHERE ON EQUIPMENT (OR EVEN FROM NET LOCATION BY SENSING MODEM) AT FIRST STEP, SO I WOULDN'T HAVE TO RESET BIOS EVERY TIME NEW O/S WAS DESIRED. ALSO DON'T BE FOOLED, BIOS MAY BE VIRTUALIZTION DEVICE & SLIENTLY OPEN YOUR USEAGE UP TO "ANYONE", WE ALL WANT SMOOTHER MACHINE THAT DOSN'T "LOSE" STUFF, LIKE HALF PARTIONS, ETC. LET ALONE READJUSTING ITSELF TO "WORSE" SETTING, ETC. ALSO BIOS COULD USE REAL DETAILED INSTRUCTIONS, HOW TO USE THINGS LIKE F8 CORRECTLY, RIGHT ON BIOS STARTUP PAGE & BE ADDED MORE TO LATTER. WHEN FILE IS CORRUPTED ON BOOT UP, "BIOS" SHOULD RETRIEVE NEEDED FILE(S) FROM ANOTHER PARTITION FOR YOU & CORRECTLY INSTALL AUTOMATICALLY, ETC.ETC.ONLY WAY TO GET THERE IS COMPITION & LETTING THOUSANDS OF BIOS WRITERS OUT WITH BIOS MEMORY SPACE NEEDED TO CREATE SO COMPLEX BUILT-IN.SOMETHING CERTAINLY NOT OFF SELF STANDARD RIGHT NOW ON DESKTOP PC, AS FAR AS I KNOW.
SIGNED:PHYSICIAN THOMAS STEWART VON DRASHEK M.D.
Posted by (10 comments )
Reply Link Flag
About Open Source, BIOS and DRM
The old dilemma of which type of software is better (free or propietary) comes to surface once again. I'll say this: commercial software is often better in some respects, such as features included. As for open source, there are a great many great applications (I use OpenOffice and I love it), and yet, MS Office has features not yet implemented in OF. However, I agree that many open source applications are still in beta stages (and remain that way for years and years). No software is perfect, be it propietary of open source. Propietary software companies abuse their power by making the user pay ridiculious amounts of money for their products so yes, that makes them evil. But open source pretends to sell "support" for their produts, also for ridiculious amounts of money, so yes, they are evil too. Richard Stallman's vision of a world running on free software will not come true (at least not during our lifetime), but I don't think open source is doomed to extinction. Many companies like IBM are embracing Linux and open source, which is proof that open source is here to stay (not that the propietary people won't try to stop them).

As for a free BIOS, I think it would be a welcome addition. Today's pre-fabricated PCs come tied to their original hardware and replacement parts can only be bought from the original PC maker. BIOSes are no different. With each new year, BIOSes include less and less configuration options, so yes, consumers are loosing control of their PCs. DRM is the industry's answer to piracy (which they think all end users are guilty of). These DRM methods which are built into hardware will soon be hacked (didn't they say at first that DVDs couldn't be copied?) and there is nothing the companies can do to stop it. They shouldn't be afraid of open source BIOS, open source has been around for 14 years or more and propietary companies haven't lost their market. If they don't allow open source BIOS to exist, and let those users who care to "hack" or modify their machines with it, they will resort to illegal means of doing so. Why not let there be an open source BIOS, and let few users who have to know-how to use it, do their thing legitimately? I don't think that whatever losses they have will be more than what they will spend in filing lawsuits against those who "hack" their precious DRM.
Posted by Sentinel (199 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Think Windows, Linux, MS Office, OpenOffice... Is Ready? Think Again
It has been quite intellectually stimulating to have followed the debate about which software (propietary plus shared-source code or free and open-source) is preferable by individuals, governments or companies throughout the world. As for the entire lot - Windows, Linux, MS Office, OpenOffice and many other OSes and different applications one should wonder why is it that the issue of 'outsourcing" was such a political "hot potato" in the last US General Elections; also, why after all these years of information technology developments there are still so many poor people in certain parts of the world? Some simple suggestions; in the context of the earlier statement of "Disneyland should put all the rides outside the gates so they everyone can have access to them" then why not relocate a greater number of the manufactuting plants in the automotive, aircraft, petroleum... in the lesser developed countries thus allowing for a level playing field.

And, talking about "a user-controllable free BIOS being important" in enabling the porting of Operating Systems to PCs, as well a all the various functionalities and about open-source codes... Question: Why is it that IBM has not yet decided to make OS/2 Warp Open Source; additionally, how much of the remaining unknown APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) for MS Office will Microsoft will be willing to share with the open-source communities. Re: <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www-pam.usc.edu/volume4/v4i1a3s2.html" target="_newWindow">http://www-pam.usc.edu/volume4/v4i1a3s2.html</a> Hence the inherent computer software application "Functionalities" for Economic And Financial Assessment.
Posted by (187 comments )
Reply Link Flag
get a hair cut !
first tell this psycho to get a haircur and get out of his dark ages, invent fire and wheel, and then talk about software.
Posted by (128 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Richard Stallman is evil!
Why is it that some people in the open-source or free software movement feel it is necessary to have all technology completely transparent and open for wide spread inspection? Why is there this widespread belief that trade secrets are some how inherently evil? I understand the desire among open-source or free software supporters to have technology freely available for modification, review and experimentation. After all most of us in technology have developed our skills by using these very techniques to learn and explore technology. However, individuals and businesses have the right to keep their creations secret or proprietary if they wish to and should not have a bunch of hippie nerds preaching about how evil they are for protecting their copyrighted or patented works. I am tired of hearing nuts like Richard Stallman getting their panties in a bunch just because Phoenix software, or hardware manufactures don't want to freely give out information on their confidential technology just so he can create an free-BIOS. If Richard Stallman doesn't like the way the hardware companies are running their business he needs to take action by buying stock and convince executives to change, taking over a hardware company or just starting one of his own. That is what makes free market capitalism so great because if you think things are being done incorrectly you can take charge and offer these technologies. The fact is he won't do this because most people don't really give crap about their BIOS unless it is preventing a piece of hardware or software from properly functioning. There just isn't the demand from the majority of users for anyone to really be interested in his nutty idea.

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://russ.johnsonville.net/default.aspx?Page=Blog" target="_newWindow">http://russ.johnsonville.net/default.aspx?Page=Blog</a>
Posted by russ960 (22 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Something to watch...
Proprietary or open-source, hardware and software technologies are simply expected to work. Proprietary products enable and serve business and consumer needs in the same way that open-source products can deliver (plus maybe some perks and stuffs allowed by the open-source movement).

With regards to open-source BIOS, I guess it is valid to be concerned about controls, standards, security and ethics. Although I am not contending that proprietary BIOSes are controlled, secured and ethical, we can assume that they are already in place -- given the amount of investment needed to develop and maintain BIOSes, businesses are likely to fund only what works and what sells.

Open-source BIOS seems to open up many possibilities beyond the limitations of the proprietary BIOSes available today. In fact, open-source BIOSes can be powerful BUT, looking forward, they call for greater responsibilities besides just developing and publishing them.

If the BIOS links software to hardware and vice versa, then opening the BIOS may introduce inventions that allow software to have greater access and control on the hardware and/or hardware to have greater access and control on the software. Sounds good... Looks dangerous...

Hopefully, implementors and users of the open-source BIOS are responsible enough to control and standardize what gets manufactured.
Posted by Mendz (519 comments )
Reply Link Flag
For those too young to remember . .
It was the reverse engineering of the IBM BIOS that opened the door to the computer revolution. Before that if you had an NEC computer, it ran on an NEC DOS and programs written for it would only work on that machine. The BIOS clones changed all that. From then on if you bought a copy of MS Word for the PC (IBM BIOS Clone) it worked on all PC's not just the one it was designed for. A truly open source BIOS would only benefit the industry.

As for "What about the Processor Microcode???" It was Intel's' opening of the code for the 4004, 8080, and 8085 that allowed them to steal the market from Fairchild, National Semiconductor, Motorola, and the rest. I learned Intel Machine code from Intel engineers who taught at the college I went to in the early 80's. All those new engineers knew Intel code and that was the processors they designed for. It was a true stroke of brilliance on the part of Intel.

Those who badmouth the free interchange of information are just a bunch of "Johnny-come-latelies" who wouldn't know a COM port from a crouton.
Posted by Mister C (423 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What choice..?
Where is there a choice?

...when, the hardware will ONLY allow 'approved software' to run? ("Trusted Computing")

...when, network-routers will ONLY ALLOW 'approved computers' on the internet? ("secure" networks)

...when, the PRIMARY-PURPOSE of the computer, itself, is to CONTROL consumers? (DRM)

...when, the "closed" proprietary-BIOS is directly-linked, and CROSS-DEPENDANT upon proprietary-software? (OS-specific APIs)

...THERE IS NO CHOICE.

Nor, are we actually talking about "secrets". The fact is that, today, anyone can easily gain access to (or legally reverse-engineer) any level of the PCs-hardware, ...which is the way it should be (and why the PC-market has been so robust). ANYONE can write 'extensions' or 'software' that will run on ANY PC. But, much of the "Trusted Computing" architecture&#8217;s implementation is specifically designed to eliminate that FREEDOM.

The simple reality is that many of the technical-specifications of "Trusted Computing" primarily revolve around "DRM" and 'proprietary-solutions LOCK-IN. In other words... CONTROL (and choice of functionality) BEING IRREVOCABLY REMOVED FROM CONSUMERS/USERS.

A 'closed', inaccessible, BIOS is nothing more than an action similar to an automobile-manufacturer's 'WELDING the hood shut' (and claiming that it is for motorist's, and the independent car-mechanic's, own good).

Consumers DO care (if not about the technical-specifics, ...then they care about the direct results upon their ability to make choices) I know, I have spent years providing service, and explaining such things, to them.

And, I am telling you that, ...IF THEY HAVE A CHOICE, ...consumers ALWAYS choose to have CONTROL FOR THEMSELVES.

And, yes, I CAN write a 'device driver', a 'BIOS function', program an 'ASIC' and burn a 'ROM'. But, once the PC-hardware and the BIOS itself is 'completely locked-down', I will have no more choices available to me, than the "...average people...", to which, I provide solutions, and training.
Posted by Raife (63 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I'd sure like to have a crack at *my* BIOS
I have a dual opteron with 4GB memory.
But I can only see / use 3.5G.
This is because the STUPID BIOS reserves the last 512MB of address space addressable in 32 bits for its own use.
You don't notice this LEGACY FEATURE if you only have say 2GB. But when I upgraded to 4GB - there it was.
Of course on a 64-bit-capable system such as mine, the BIOS should be a 64-bit program (I bet it is on Itaniums, because they can't do 32-bit, but I like the ability to do that as AMD processors offer).
Would I be up to fixing the problem? 35 years in the business of systems programming says: go slowly. Maybe I could reduce the reserved amount while staying 32-bit. Moving to 64-bit requires a development environment that I really don't have right now.
Anyway should the BIOS be open-sourced?
ABSOLUTELY
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
"OS-specific APIs" Par Excellence or Scholarly Put
Raife, I guess you have made my day.

"when, the "closed" proprietary-BIOS is directly-linked, and CROSS-DEPENDANT upon proprietary-software? (OS-specific APIs)"

also,

...when, the hardware will ONLY allow 'approved software' to run? ("Trusted Computing")

Question: Assuming that the network (banking and financial services) must safeguard "sensitive client" information... should there not be restrictions as to who will be permitted to access data on such networks. There is an old saying that goes, When in Rome do as the Romans do. Astronauts and cosmonauts must know that there are rules to be followed to ensure a successful re-entry back to earth's atmosphere when returning from outer space. I am for stamdards, control and experimentation. A good position that could be taken is to let the open-source community do what they want to do and let the who want to bring astronauts safely back to earth or protect clientele data as with ("Trusted Computing") adhere to strict standards and control.

Once again, "OS-specific APIs" make quite a lot os sense in that; and, to repeat:

Functionality, Functionality..............

Short Session on the Economic Rate of Return (ERR)

Here is an Outline.

A. Nature of the ERR - shadow prices as proxies to
opportunity costs.

B. Purpose of the ERR - economic viability

C. Methodology for arriving at the ERR

1. Financial computations (IRR) as inputs

2. Apportioning variables to shadow prices

a) theory: all inputs and outputs

b) practice: 1) important costs and
benefits; and,

2) most likely distorted items

and so on, and so on.....

D. Interpretation of the ERR

1. If ERR &gt; IRR

2. If ERR &lt; IRR

As Keith remarked "Open Source is about "to all according to their needs, from all according to their ability" That much I can discuss with the community for now. The point that I am attempting to make is this , where do people in general want to go! If it is outer space then all the resources would have to be gotten together, inclusive of at least a skilled captain; just so, in the case of arriving at an economically viable international project all the resources would be needed - computer operating system and application, along with the multi-disciplinary analytical capabilities of the particular individual/s to be involved. Just how well developed is the computer industry (Free and Open Source as well as propietary + shared-source code) to satisfy the above-mentioned functionalities. Questions: Think Windows, Linux, MS Office, OpenOffice... Are ready with the requisite "OS-specific APIs"? Think Again! Who has funded/will fund the developments? What have been/will be the important costs and benefits? Does Open Source have a cost?, and how much!
Posted by (187 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Hands off our BIOS
So I buy an HP Pavilion... which exhibits a NIC.. come to use it... NIC doesn't work. Phone HP... can't activate NIC unless BIOS programmed for it.
Can I have a firmware download... No, your series of model 8690 Mfr Yr 2000-1 was not intended to go to Corporate Network users !!! Sorree... so why does it have a NIC at all? Why can't I reprogram the BIOS ? Click.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Wouldn't this render support impossible?
One of the things that makes Linux such a turnoff for the masses is its lack of "concreteness." That is to say, once someone gets their hands on it, absolutely anything can (and probably will) go wrong, with very little chance of support. I grant that most of the people who use Linux have quite a good degree of competence when it comes to the inner workings of an OS (that's my perception, anyway), but I think if I gave open source software to everyone in my family and told them to go to town, when they came to me with questions on their specific configurations, I would probably be lost in the dark.

In my opinion, one strong selling point for closed-source is the fact that it's supportable en masse. I'm not familiar with how you would support something that is so highly customizable, but perhaps someone can fill me in.
Posted by Christopher Hall (1205 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Linux for Mom and Dad.
Users, like Mom and Dad, are computer stupid. They aren't interested in building kernels or running scripts to install software or drivers. The one thing to remember is they are barely Windows literate. Aside from running application most of them don't know how to do anything else.

I showed a man the other day how to install drivers from nVidia the other day. He download them and double clicked the icon on his desktop and followed the instruction up to the point of turning off the antivirus software. He didn't know what to do so he left his computer just like that till I got there. Now imagine him trying to install those drivers on linux. He would have never made it that far.

I really like linux and for me it's all good, but for the rest of the computer stoopud world (who by the way barley know Windows) it's just too scary. For those of us tech junkies we don't care how hard it is to make it work. We love the challenge and the reward of knowing how to do it. For the rest though they don't care about who makes it, how it's better, or why they should us it. They want simple, easy, and user friendly. Linux just isn't really there yet. I figure it will be someday, but it even took Windows and Mac time to get where they are today.
Posted by System Tyrant (1453 comments )
Reply Link Flag
FREE My Car!
We need free software in our cars, because if we don't control the embedded systems, we don't control the automobiles. It puts me in an ethically compromised position to have a nonfree program in my SUV.
--
Paul R - FCF President
FREE Car Foundation
Posted by open-mind (1027 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Openfirmware anyone?
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.openfirmware.org/" target="_newWindow">http://www.openfirmware.org/</a>

Has been around for a while and is used by Sun, Apple and
Motorola for their various architectures.
Posted by digantasaha (21 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Free My Toaster
We need free software in our Toaster, because if we don't control the embedded systems, we don't control the Toaster. It puts me in an ethically compromised position($ex) to have a nonfree program in my Toaster.
--
Dick Asss - FTF President
Free Toaster Foundation
Posted by (128 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The BIOS...
could be protected by something as simple as a software/hardware "switch". Then the makers could include a waiver saying, "Flip the switch at your own risk!" That way, the newbies are protected, the hackers (or wannabes) are happy, and the crackers are basically F****d.

As for the "give it all away for free" and "workers of the world unite" speaches, I'll just reserve my right to DNR. Now, if you'll all excuse me, I've got some work to do--using Evil Excel and Wicked Word.

-JDM
Posted by culture_of_one (68 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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