It has little or nothing to do with patents or litigation risks. At most
all it means is that NVIDIA has to put things through a legal review
process like ATI has done to ensure that NVIDIA does not knowingly release
information they are bound not to.
It has to do with market strength. Video drivers -- especially Open ones -
- are not a commodity. A lot of drivers exist, but most of them are shit.
Intels drivers are crappy, even their proprietary Windows ones. ATI's
drivers have a horrifically bad history even on Windows. NVIDIA has had
its goofs, but overall their drivers have been simply fantastic for many
years. Their driver team is superb. Maybe they're better funded, maybe
the company provides them better documentation, or maybe NVIDIA just
managed to hire the better team -- why they have better drivers is not
important, but the fact that they do have such soundly superior drivers is
The ATI hardware is damn nice. Intel's hardware is even pretty damn well
done, given the market it aims for. Both Intel and ATI have problems
delivering that hardware to users in a usable package due to shoddy
drivers, however. I can point to 3 series bugs in the latest Intel Windows
drivers, and nobody who's ever used FGLRX can deny the flakiness of ATI's
NVIDIA giving up their driver tech will literally level the playing field.
ATI drivers with NVIDIA's memory manager, GLSL/HLSL compilers,
optimizations, and general architecture would pretty much eliminate any
advantage NVIDIA has over ATI.
Why would a company possibly want to do that for absolutely no gain?
NVIDIA doesn't need help from the community developing its drivers. It
makes more than enough to afford the salaries of its driver team. It will
get no benefit from Open Source drivers. It will simply lose its edge.
The Free Software camp will claim this is unethical of NVIDIA. If NVIDIA
is knowledge and learning that results in superior drivers, says the FSF,
then NVIDIA should improve and enrich mankind by sharing that knowledge,
and that not sharing that information is a direct and intentional attack on
the progress and future of humanity. That's all fine and good to think
like that if you want. NVIDIA -- and most other companies -- aren't in the
business of enriching mankind, unfortunately, and aren't going to risk
their marketable strengths for idealism, especially when their share-
holders are not the kind of people that accept knowledge-withholding as
If and when the Open Source drivers become a commodity -- much like Open
Source web servers or programming languages or kernels or GUI toolkits --
then and only then will the cost/benefit ratio of releasing Open drivers
even start to look advantageous for a market leader like NVIDIA.
In other words, until ATI's drivers can trounce NVIDIA's, NVIDIA is not
ever going to Open their drivers.
Open drivers' advantages are pretty low compared to NVIDIA's (on the
practical side of things, at least). There are a few niche markets where
Open is actually a bullet point used when evaluating a product. There are
cases when the community can improve the driver more easily and more
cheaply than the vendor. There are cases where being included upstream in
the Linux kernel or userland graphics stack increases market share.
Unfortunately, video drivers are not one of those places. The binary
NVIDIA driver is still hugely popular even for regular ol' Linux users
because its feature set, performance, and stability outweighs the costs of
having a binary blob in their kernel. The average Linux desktop user has
already proven that Open or being upstreamed are not prerequisites to
purchase. Much like the early history of Linux, then, it is only by
turning the market for video drivers into one of commodities instead of one
of luxuries that Open will become the standard and proprietary will fade