I think it's better to look at how the binary HAL is actually being used, rather than have
some baseless faith in an orderly and just authoritarian world and become appologists working
backwards from rules to warm comforting motivations.
The DDwrt project has bought access to source code under NDA from Atheros, and is now selling
``unlock codes'' to disable checks DDwrt has compiled into their binary HAL.
You can bicker all you like about whether assisting people to transmit on unauthorized bands
puts DDwrt developers and their children and children's children into mortal danger from duh
LAW, but I don't really care. It is a DRM scheme. If it weren't for the binary HAL, the GPL
would make it impossible for DDwrt to lock us out of the hardware we buy, and then sell us
back some slightly less limited access into it. The tiny binary piece we have allowed to
creep into otherwise GPL'ed DDwrt enables this scheme.
Other ways that the Atheros HAL is used are, like the Intel wireless blob, to protect
algorithms that Atheros thinks give them a competitive advantage, like rate adaptation. I've
heard rumors also that the NDISwrapper drivers for certain cards do much better than the
open-source drivers on congested networks, so there may be some congestion cleverness built
into the Atheros HAL, too.
Also, since the open source world is forced to use the HAL by lack of documentation, and by
enticing all of its lead developers to sign Atheros NDA's lockingn their friends out of the
project, the open source world is forced to accept whatever second-rate crap HAL it's handed
under a redistributable license, so Leffler can use Linux as an army of captive beta testers
for the HALs his employer, Atheros, would like to put into the next stepping of binary
Finally, the HAL source itself is something Atheros can sell to make money.
These are ways that the binary HAL is actually being used. so make as many excuses as you
like about what it's ``for'', but that is all just a dream. Here is the fact of how it's
I use free software for a reason, and find this disgusting. Argue all you like to defend
Atheros's ``interest'' or decide who is a good/bad person/company, it's still simply
disgusting to live as a geek in such a restrictive, exploitive, back-stabbing environment as
Atheros and DDwrt have together created.
I'm using OpenBSD and RaLink now. I will probably end up buying an Atheros chip, and using
DDwrt's HAL, simply because I know of nothing else available that is even close to working on
a (mostly) open-source OS for 802.11a. Does this make me a hypocrite and invalidate
everything I've said? Does the lack of competition make continuing to tolarate Leffler,
DDwrt, and the closed HAL right, desireable, or excuseable? It does not, no more than the
nonexistence of Linux made the lack of free operating systems right, desireable, or excuseable
to the generation of students before my own.