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Ubuntu to add proprietary drivers


Reluctantly, the Ubuntu developer community has decided that with the next version of Ubuntu, Feisty Fawn, it will be including some proprietary drivers. Feisty Fawn’s emphasis on “multimedia enablement” appears to be the culprit.
Feisty Fawn, aka Ubuntu 7.04, is scheduled for release on Apr. 19, 2007. According to Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu’s founder, “The main themes for feature development in this release will be improvements to hardware support in the laptop, desktop and high-end server market, and aggressive adoption of emerging desktop technologies. Ubuntu’s Feisty release will put the spotlight on multimedia enablement and desktop effects.”

To accomplish, the Ubuntu developer community has decided that it must use, for now at least, proprietary drivers.

It’s not that Ubuntu’s developers like proprietary drivers. The developers felt that given that, “A large proportion of people using Ubuntu — including 70%-80% of people with new computers — need a non-Free driver for reasonable performance from their graphics card, wireless card, or modem, because there is no Free driver available, they had little choice in the matter.

In particular, the Ubuntu developers are working on adding binary ATI and NVIDA graphic card drivers to the distribution. This is because, “Currently, Ubuntu does little to enable 3D acceleration on cards that support these features. Composite support is enabled by default on X.Org since Ubuntu Edgy, but various video boards need specific options to support either Composite or 3D acceleration correctly, or have them explicitly disabled, in case these technologies are not supported.”

So it is that Ubuntu has “chosen to install non-Free drivers by default.” Specifically, it has been decided that “Both NVIDIA and ATI proprietary drivers will be installed by default, on Ubuntu Feisty.” That does not mean, however, that they will be enabled for all video boards. For example, since ATI proprietary drivers do not support Composite graphics, this “driver will only be enabled by default for users whose video boards are not supported by the open source ‘ati’ video driver.”

In addition, work has started on bringing proprietary drivers into Ubuntu for the so-called Win-modems (fritz isdn/dsl modules, lt-modem) and the Atheros (ath_hal aka madwifi) and Intel 3945 Intel wireless chipsets.

The developers are well aware of the problems with using these drivers. For example, there are the simple technical problems that support for the drivers is completely dependent on the hardware vendor. And, then, when the vendor does make a bug fix, that “improvement” will require careful testing, since the developers won’t know what was changed in the update. Of course, on top of that, there are the philosophical objections to using binary drivers in Linux.

Many public comments about this decision object to Ubuntu’s decision. One writer said, “We should not give up our freedom for a short term advantage.”

A public poll, on the Ubuntu forums, however, reveals far less outrage and far more desktop pragmatism. As of the evening of Nov. 17, on the question, “Should binary NVidia/ATI drivers be automatically installed & activated in Ubuntu?,” the answers were:

  • 32.62 percent — “Yes, while informing the user of the relevant issues, etc.”
  • 54.63 percent — “Users should be given a choice about this during installation”
  • and only 12.75 percent voted for “No, such drivers can stay in a non-free repo, just like now”

In any case, Ubuntu is moving forward with incorporating proprietary drivers. At the same time, though, Ubuntu will be trying to educate users about the issues around non-free drivers. The plan, now, is for this to be done by “using a notification bubble on login, an extra section in the Device Manager, and a CGI script on for providing up-to-date information about alternative hardware.”

Thus the goal is that while Ubuntu will be shipping “proprietary drivers in the short term, we should take steps to improve the situation in the long term. We believe the best way to do this is to convey the problem to people using Ubuntu – explaining why we distribute non-Free drivers at all, what the risks are, and what people can do to avoid such hardware in future.”

A version of this story was first published in Desktop Linux.

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