Reverse engineering is a longstanding tradition in the free software
community. It has often been the only way to get hardware to work when the
manufacturer refuses to make documentation available, but there is more to
it than that. Some of us, certainly, enjoy the challenge of figuring out
how a particular device works. And our sense of freedom tells us that it
is our right to understand the hardware which we have purchased and
rightfully own. We, as a group, tend not to respond well to those who tell
us that reverse engineering a product is not the right thing to do. But,
increasingly, your editor is hearing voices within the community which are
saying just that.
One of the most prominent reverse engineering projects at the moment is Nouveau, which is starting to
have some real success in making NVIDIA graphics adapters work with free
software; see this week's Kernel Page for an article on the state of this
project. NVIDIA hardware has been a problem for a long time, of course.
It is said to be nicely-designed, and it is certainly present in a
significant percentage of new machines, but NVIDIA has had no interest in
making free drivers (or documentation) available for some years. So the
only way for owners of this hardware to use it with reasonable performance
under Linux is to use NVIDIA's proprietary kernel module, and that is a
price many of us are not willing to pay.
There are currently about eight developers working to make the Nouveau
driver better. They have reached a point where their understanding of the
hardware and their reverse engineering tools are quite good; that, in turn,
is enabling fast progress toward the creation of a working driver. With
this kind of developer attention, the Nouveau driver may reach a stable
state over the course of the next year, at least for some versions of the
hardware. And that, it seems, should be a good thing.
Except for one little issue. NVIDIA's competition in this market is
provided mainly by Intel and AMD/ATI. Intel provides free drivers for its
hardware as a matter of company policy, and AMD has pushed a much more
friendly policy onto ATI since the middle of last year. So free drivers
for Intel video adapters come with distributions, and the first ATI drivers
are beginning to become available.
One rather perverse result of this situation is that there are almost no
community developers working on the Intel drivers at all. The development
and maintenance of those drivers is an expense carried by Intel alone. One
could argue that the lack of hardware documentation from Intel has made it
hard for other developers to participate; Intel is now beginning to address
that problem by burying the community in comprehensive, Creative
Commons-licensed hardware programming manuals. It will be interesting to
see how much more community help Intel gets as a result of its
ATI, which has not, to date, provided working, free drivers, is arguably
getting more help from the community and, especially, from distributors who
have an interest in working drivers. But that company, too, is putting in
resources of its own toward that goal.
NVIDIA, instead, is giving us nothing - and, in return, we are giving it
an eight-person development team dedicated to the production of free
drivers for its hardware. Once Nouveau is in a working state, Linux users will be able to
buy NVIDIA hardware in the knowledge that it will simply work without
requiring them to download and use binary-only kernel modules. The result
of that can only be higher sales for NVIDIA.
While talking to developers at linux.conf.au, your editor heard a number of
them say that NVIDIA does not deserve a gift of this magnitude from the
community. We are now quite close to having free support for video
hardware at all performance levels, supplied by friendly
companies. Rather than penalize those companies by making a free gift to
their biggest competitor, some say, shouldn't NVIDIA be made to pay for its
behavior by exclusion from our community until it comes around?
There is a point here. The biggest lever we have when talking with
hardware companies (or any company, for that matter) is money. Companies
which see themselves as missing out on the Linux market will find a strong
incentive to change their behavior. So if NVIDIA finds that system
resellers are not using its chipsets for Linux-based systems, it will have
to reconsider its position with regard to free drivers.
In the past, there was no credible alternative to NVIDIA, so the company
had no real reason to fear that it could lose money as a result of its
uncooperative behavior. Now there are well-supported alternatives at the
lower end of the market, and the prospect of the same for high-end graphics
as well. So there will be no need to buy hardware from this particular
vendor, and, since the alternatives will be well supported, every reason to
buy from somebody else.
Unless NVIDIA's hardware, too, is made to work via a community-supported
driver. Should this happen, one could well say that we, as a community,
have taken a prize away from companies which have treated us well and
handed it to their competitor (which has not). Arguably, the community
should not pursue the creation of reverse-engineered drivers in situations
where competing vendors are playing by our rules. Otherwise, we are
sending a rather conflicted message to both types of companies. It may
really be true that, in the long run, the Nouveau driver is harmful to our
All of this discussion may be moot. There's no way that any of us could keep
others from reverse-engineering their hardware and writing drivers, even if
we wanted to. Anybody arguing against the mainline inclusion of a
GPL-licensed driver for popular hardware is likely to end up in a minority
position, to say the least. So, as a community, we cannot make a
collective decision to stop this kind of development. But, as individual
developers, we may occasionally want to give a moment's thought to the
question of whether our activities are truly beneficial in the long run.
Comments (94 posted)
It is an exciting time for Linux users who are interested in ultra-mobile
PCs (UMPCs). New models are being announced frequently with
many—dare we say most?—coming with at least the option to have
Linux pre-installed. The low-cost models probably require Linux in order
to make their price point, but even higher-end UMPCs seem to be made with
Linux firmly in mind. In many ways, the One
Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project has driven the demand for low-cost
machines for adults as well.
Commercial offerings from ASUS (Eee PC), Everex (Cloudbook), Elonex (One),
along with a rumored
UMPC from HP are giving both the OLPC and Intel's ClassmatePC some
competition. Add in Nokia's N810 and you have a half-dozen very mobile
solutions featuring Linux—though the ClassmatePC seems to be more
geared towards Windows XP. None of them has quite the right set of
features to be the ultimate UMPC, but we seem to be headed in the right
direction, so it is worth contemplating what that machine might look like.
Battery life is the achilles heel of mobile devices; some kind of
breakthrough in power consumption or energy storage needs to happen for big
strides to be made in this area. Because of weight considerations, today's
UMPCs tend to have small batteries and three hours or less of battery life.
Something on the order of twelve hours—with a measurement in days
being the real goal—is more like what is needed. Perhaps some kind
of human-powered or alternative charging mechanism can play a role. It is
probably the biggest challenge to reaching something approaching an
Part of the reason that battery life is so low is because of how much power
the display consumes. With rotating media on its way out (at least for
these kinds of devices), the display is one of the areas where power
savings would be felt most strongly. The E-Ink displays, such as those
used by the newer e-book readers, have some great properties in terms of
power consumption, but the speed at which they update makes them
undesirable for general computer use. Many of us spend a fair amount of time
looking at a static screen for several to many seconds at a time. Web
pages or e-books might be candidates for using E-Ink, perhaps, but not
Wesnoth or typing a document.
Perhaps a dual-mode screen that
combined an LED and E-Ink display could blend the best of both. OLPC has
an innovative display with many of the characteristics needed which can also
can be viewed in sunlit conditions. Former OLPC CTO Mary Lou
Jepsen's startup is licensing the XO display technology, so we may see it in a
UMPC before too long.
The size of the display will likely need to be larger than today's
offerings as well. That will be a balancing act between size, weight, and cost
which will be interesting to see play out. A touchscreen is another feature
that will be necessary as the display should be usable separate
from the keyboard. Some way of transforming a small laptop into a tablet
PC and e-book reader would be very desirable, with bonus points awarded if that
transformation is fast and seamless.
A full-sized or nearly so keyboard is also a necessity. Too much of the
work that we do involves words and numbers that need to be input. If this
device is to become an integral part of a day-to-day routine, thumb
or child-sized keyboards just won't cut it.
Wifi and wired connectivity are obvious, while Bluetooth would seem to be a
good addition to provide internet via cell phone. Some might want to
integrate actual cell phone functionality into the device itself—to avoid
the multiple device hassle. Given that the size of a UMPC won't ever reach
that of a cell phone, that seems like a stretch, but for those who want it,
an optional feature seems like the way to provide that.
Like the OLPC, the device should be ruggedized, able to withstand
reasonable amounts of abuse without much more than a case scratch. This is
another area where flash disks will help as there won't be the threat of
losing data when the disk heads suffer rapid deceleration. The price per
gigabyte for solid-state drives will drop to the point where a few hundred
GB will be possible at a reasonable price. Carrying around one's favorite
music as FLACs, rather than in some lossy format, should be possible.
A fairly modest and power-friendly processor with a GB or two of RAM should round out the
basics of the hardware. The device will run Linux, of course, and might
have a few other peripherals: camera, microphone, speakers, etc. All
should be available for $500-700, at least in a very functional low-end
configuration. When might we see such a device? Two to three years seems
quite likely, certainly before five years have passed. When it's ready,
please send one to LWN for review in care of the author.
Comments (31 posted)
Just as it seemed the SCO saga was drawing to a close, a new player, with
up to $100 million to risk, has come on the scene. Stephen Norris Capital
Partners (SNCP) has made an offer to take SCO private while providing a
line of credit to allow the company to continue its operations.
If the bankruptcy court
in Delaware agrees to the plan—which is not a foregone
conclusion—SCO and its various legal cases could be with us for a
long time to come.
SNCP will put up $5 million in cash to essentially purchase between 51
and 85% of SCO; the exact percentage is dependent upon how much of the $95
million credit line is used to pay off Novell and/or IBM. If there is no
payment, because SCO eventually wins those cases, SNCP will get 51%. If
the payment is over $30 million, SNCP gets 85%; in between those two, the
percentage of ownership will be pro-rated between the two. The actual
transaction would issue "Series A Preferred" stock to SNCP (and its
investors), which would be convertible into SCO "New Common Stock"; the
current common stockholders would be see their shares "extinguished" and a
trust established for them. This deal would take SCO private, no longer
publicly traded nor subject to SEC reporting requirements.
Under the proposed agreement, the credit line has an interest rate of the London Interbank Offered Rate
(LIBOR) plus "1700 basis points"—17% for those without a high-finance background—which currently works out to be around 20%. This is
clearly not cheap money, but it does provide a rather large war chest for
SCO to continue the fight. The Memorandum of
Understanding (MOU) [PDF] makes it clear that interest payments are part of
what the line of credit is supposed to pay for:
The purpose of the loan is to provide funds for (i) working capital for
SCO following its emergence from bankruptcy, (ii) to pay interest when
due under the Debt Financing, and (iii) to support the prosecution of
the Reorganized Debtor's Litigation Claims, including providing letters
of credit or other financial arrangements adequate to support any
required appellate bonds (in which event the Reorganized SCO shall pay
the reasonable letter of credit fees and expenses), and to effect
payment of any final award against the Reorganized Debtor).
SCO's bombastic CEO, Darl McBride, will be required to resign as a
condition of the deal. The Series A stockholders would be entitled to
elect four of the seven board members, ensuring that they control the
day-to-day direction of the company. The CEO would hold another seat, as
would an "outside executive with suitable industry expertise." The
remaining seat would be open to anyone and voted on by the current common
What do the current stockholders get from this deal? Not much in
the short term, as the MOU would set up a trust with $2 million (from the
$5 million cash investment) to be distributed amongst the current
stockholders. The current common stock would be "extinguished" and the
trust would hold "New Common Stock" equivalent to the 15-49% left over
based on the amount of the credit line used. Shareholders would get a
pro-rata interest in the trust based on their current percentage of
ownership. Based on 22 million outstanding shares, the distribution will
amount to around $0.09 per share.
Since SCO sued IBM in March 2003, most of the stock speculation has been
based on some kind of monetary settlement from IBM. Investors in SCO since
that time have essentially been betting on that outcome; the new arrangement
still allows the current stockholders to hold onto their litigation lottery
ticket. Any settlement money that comes to SCO as a result of the Novell
and IBM cases would be paid to the trust in the percentage of ownership of
the company that it holds (i.e. 15-49%). At that time, the trust would
also get its percentage of four times the previous year's earnings. These
would then be distributed to the members of the trust.
It's a fairly complicated deal, this just covers the high points; the
curious are directed at the MOU itself. It is a bit premature to proclaim
that SCO is going private or getting $100 million as some in the press
have done. The bankruptcy court will have its say; Novell may have an objection
or two as well though, as things currently stand, they would be the likely
beneficiary of some substantial part of the line of credit. We may get a
read on how confident Novell is based on what, if any, objections they raise.
It is hard to imagine that SNCP thinks SCO's business prospects are such
that a large financial commitment is warranted. This is very clearly an
attempt to wring money out of the current litigation—and perhaps
start additional lawsuits. It is interesting to note that in addition to
the Novell and IBM lawsuits, the MOU specifically mentions the Autozone
case. There is speculation that the idea of a "Linux tax" on users is an
outcome that SNCP and its investors covet.
The question is, does SNCP truly believe that the claims made by
SCO—without much in the way of supporting evidence so far—are
likely to succeed on their merits? Or do they think that by providing
enough incentive—in the form of a further protracted legal
battle—might cause someone to settle? The IBM case has been dragging
on for almost five years now. With the kind of money SCO would have at its
disposal if this deal goes through, dragging out for another five does not seem implausible. At some point IBM or Novell may tire of
the whole thing and try to cut some kind of deal. One hopes not, but that
may be exactly what SNCP is betting on. The other side of that coin is
that if that doesn't happen, we may well get a real hearing on some of
IBM's counterclaims, in particular the GPL-infringement claims.
be very interesting to watch.
Comments (66 posted)
Page editor: Jake Edge
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