Robert X. Cringely has reported
on a new threat to Linux: a Microsoft-driven version of the USB standard
which will not be usable by Linux. The article is rather short on details,
but the idea seems to be that only "trusted" USB devices could be written
to, and the mechanism for identifying and communicating with these devices
would be closed. You'll be able to install Linux on your future
motherboard, but it will not be able to work with the new USB devices.
This sort of story comes around fairly regularly. Long-time LWN readers
will remember some past worries:
- Once upon a time, the "Merced" architecture from Intel was to be
the future of computing. Unfortunately, Merced was under
nondisclosure, and, in any case, getting gcc to generate code for that
architecture was said to be beyond the capabilities of its developers.
In the reality, Merced, later named Itanium, had top-quality Linux
support from the beginning. We're still waiting for the "future of
computing" part, though.
- The I2O specification was kept under wraps for some time, and it
looked like Linux would be unable to drive any I2O-based hardware.
Richard Stallman called I2O
"a broad plan to keep hardware specifications secret".
As it turned out, the specifications were released, and Linux supports
I2O without trouble.
In other words, we have seen this sort of thing before. Fears of
Linux-killer hardware turned out to be misplaced even in the 1990's, when
Linux was a far smaller commercial force than it is now. In the current
climate, it is hard to imagine the hardware companies adopting a
fundamental technology (a processor or bus architecture, say) that was
deliberately closed to non-Microsoft operating systems. Not all vendors
rush out to embrace Linux, BSD, and MacOS users, but few will see a
business case in explicitly excluding them. Especially if that exclusion
would consolidate the position of a company which has not always
distinguished itself with its considerate treatment of its "partners."
On the other hand, proprietary hardware and digital restrictions management
schemes do bear watching. The troubles Linux has had with playing DVDs
have been well documented. The "broadcast flag" will restrict the ability
of Linux systems to work with digital radio receivers in the future.
"Trusted computing" schemes may keep Linux off some hardware altogether.
There are threats out there, but an exclusionary USB specification
is probably not one of them. Nobody besides Cringely seems to know
much about this new USB standard, however, and the Linux USB developers are
not particularly worried about it. For the time being, the rest of us
probably need not worry either.
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