February 28, 2005 2:14 PM PST

Foundation wants more of the PC to be free

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The Free Software Foundation is calling on developers of open-source software to put their efforts into creating a free version of a crucial but obscure piece of software used in personal computers.

The Boston-based FSF wants to foster the broader development of free BIOS software for standard PCs. The BIOS, or basic input-output system, is a little-known application that acts as a go-between for a PC's hardware and operating system. It enables many advanced hardware features--power management for extending notebooks' battery life, for example.

Right now most BIOS software on PCs or computer motherboards is developed by a PC manufacturer or a BIOS specialist such as Phoenix. That manufacturer typically decides when and how the BIOS software is updated, if it's updated at all. The Free Software Foundation's effort to foster a free BIOS--meaning a BIOS that costs nothing and could be installed and used freely--would put control of BIOS more in the hands of end users, foundation President Richard Stallman said in a speech last week in Brussels, Belgium.

Even though free BIOSes such as LinuxBIOS exist, Stallman called for more development for what he called PC clones--standard desktop and laptop PCs.

"How to install a new BIOS is...secret on many machines. And so far, most manufacturers have not given us the necessary cooperation of providing these specifications," he said. "Some desktop machines can run a free BIOS, but we don't know of any laptop that can do so."

The effort could also help solve a long-running Linux bugaboo. Because BIOS software is closely held, software writers don't have access to its source code, often making it difficult to get sophisticated computer features such as power management to work with Linux.

So far, free or open-source BIOS projects have received some support from the Linux community and also big names such as Intel.

The LinuxBIOS, a BIOS replacement based on the Linux operating system kernel, has been in development since 1999 and can be used with a number of motherboards for AMD processors.

Intel also has been working to update the technology that underlies most BIOSes, which it has promised to release as open-source software. Stallman, however, described that effort as incomplete.

Intel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

To help foster more free BIOS software, the foundation is asking for people to pitch in on development issues, such as determining how to install new BIOS software on PCs. It is also encouraging people to buy motherboards that use free BIOS software, including the LinuxBIOS, and to patronize companies such as AMD, which it says supports free BIOS. In addition, it is asking people to write letters to others, like Intel, in an effort to convince them to support free BIOS software.

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Sounds like something that could useful...
if more companies like Phoenix start embedding DRM into their BIOS.
Posted by unknown unknown (1951 comments )
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What a horrifically bad idea....
Why some people might envision a "free bios" as anything but an open invitation to hackers to begin attacking computers at the bios level is beyond me. Such hackers would surely love being able to get in under the OS and safeguard software, and this would present a perfect vehicle for them to do so. The so-called "secrecy" this article alleges is in reality but an extra and very effective layer of defense against the malicious and imbalanced hacker persona.

Besides that, the concept itself is riddled with contradiction. Writing a so-called "free bios" would have absolutely no effect on the cost of motherboards to both the companies which manufacture them or the end users who buy them. IE, having a "free bios" would not be free to anyone in actuality.

Second, the motherboards made by specific companies are of necessity custom designs manufactured according to the goals, abilities, and approaches of the various manufacturers involved. Then, there are the specific companies which design and manufacture the core-logic chipsets used in motherboards--all of which demands custom bios support. One size simply does not fit all and if it did there'd simply be no choice available for consumers aside from a single choice--and who wants a "People's Computer"...? Surely not me...;)

In many cases the concept of "free" does not mean "safe" or "secure" or even "inexpensive," ironically enough (think of Kaaza, for instance)...;) But some people seem fundamentally unable to comprehend the reasons as to why this is so, unfortunately. For them, anything which merely pretends to be "free," even if it isn't, is desirable.
Posted by Walt Connery (89 comments )
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Totally Agree
Bad Idea.
Posted by fred dunn (793 comments )
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Start With Standards
Walt Connery obviously has an ax to grind: The hallmark of a self-interested argument is to produce poor counterarguments.

The problems with BIOS start with standards. Certainly the publication of IBM of the original BIOS code established a benchmark, but no standards. Subsequent standards and conventions (e.g., using flash instead of ROM/PROM, ACPI) and the proliferation of I/o Device types (SCSI, USB) are all fragmented pieces of the puzzle.

Like the effort to standardize a common StandardLinux spec, this project can only proceed with an (evolving) standard for BIOS hardware expectations and functionality specifications.

I'd be a willing contributor to such an effort.
Posted by CAOgdin75 (14 comments )
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