30 April 2007

Seamless Hardware Support is now the Top Priority for GNU/Linux

I have just installed a PCI wireless card from a company that I'd previously not heard of into an old PC, and booted the PC into a Xubuntu GNU/Linux Live distribution. I wanted to find out if the card was supported by Ubuntu (Xubuntu is a variant of Ubuntu, but using the lightweight XFCE desktop which makes it more suitable for use with older hardware). After booting up, it took a couple of mouse clicks to enable the wireless card, I entered the security details of my access point and 'voila', I was connected. It really could not have been easier. This was in sharp contrast to previous attempts with cards from different manufacturers.

So what was special about this particular card? In short, it was ordered from a supplier (The Linux Emporium) who make a business out of selecting hardware that is known to be compatible with Linux and selling to the general public. So, I could be fairly sure that this card would have a good level of support. In fact, the card was supplied with very detailed instructions from Linux Emporium themselves about what I might need to do to get it up and running; it looks like these were worst case instructions that you might need to follow if you were using an older version of Linux. As it happens, I was using a late release candidate of Xubuntu 7.04, otherwise known as Feisty Fawn, which was released just last week. As far as being up to date is concerned, you don't get more up to date than that without having to do a lot of the work yourself.

It is true that over the 4 years that I have been using various GNU/Linux distributions, I have seen a huge improvement in the level of support for hardware. It used to be the case that virtually no manufacturers of graphics cards, chipsets, WiFi cards, cameras, printers and so forth provided Linux drivers for their wares. Now it seems, either the Free Software community have reverse engineered proprietary drivers and written fully functional Free drivers, or the manufacturers themselves have provided them or at the very least provided full specifications to enable others to do so.

There are a few glaring exceptions to this. Nvidia provide a fairly good quality set of drivers for Linux, but these are proprietary and no distributor of Linux stands a chance of being able to support these as they don't have access to the source code - they are totally at the mercy of Nvidia to fix bugs, security issues and the like and provide updated drivers. They are also reliant on Nvidia not to drop support for older chiipsets - see my earlier post on this matter. The other main graphics card manufacturer ATI (now owned by AMD) also provide proprietary drivers for Linux, although the general consensus seems to be that they are not particularly good (I don't own an ATI card so have not tried them myself). Out of the graphics chip manufacturers only Intel provide good, Free drivers for Linux, but their chips are not as capable as those from Nvidia or ATI so are of little appeal to gamers for example.

When I ask myself what barriers there are to the adoption of GNU/Linux, it's clear that from an applications perspective there is very little that Linux cannot provide but which other operating systems can - OpenOffice.org is an excellent office productivity suite similar to Microsoft Office; Mozilla Firefox and Konqueror are excellent web browsers; Evolution and Kontact provide fully-featured email and calendaring functionality; Amarok and Rhythmbox are excellent music players similar in style to Apple's iTunes; F-Spot and digiKam manage photos admirably; there are mature apps for bittorrent, web development, software development, CD-burning, playing vidoes, watching TV that equal or surpass the equivalent on proprietary operating systems. However, what does still occur far more often is that people attempt to install their chosen GNU/Linux distribution onto their laptop, only to find that there is one or more piece of hardware that isn't supported. This, in almost all cases, is enough to make them go back to their proprietary OS, maybe only to try again a year later. It may be their WiFi, scanner, printer, graphics card or something else but it only takes one failure to put people off. It's clear to me that this must now be the number one priority to adoption of GNU/Linux on the desktop. There has been a suggestion that the next release of Ubuntu (codenamed The Gutsy Gibbon) should focus on this.

According to this article it looks like Dell may be about to start offering Ubuntu pre-installed on some of their models. It also suggests that they understand the hardware compatibility issue well, and are making an effort to ensure that all of their hardware choices are supported by Linux. Given that many Dell owners will at some stage try GNU/Linux out, the last thing Dell wants is to have a reputation for things not working. This will persuade a proportion of potential buyers to look elsewhere, so their bottom line depends on good cross-platform hardware support.

If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of having a piece of hardware that isn't supported in Linux, please bug the manufacturers about this, rather than the provider of your distribution. The manufacturers won't provide support if they don't believe the Linux market for their hardware is big enough, so they need to know that you are part of that market and wish to use their hardware. After all, you won't buy from them again nor recommend them to your friends. Due to the nature of Free Software it's hard to know the true size of that market - it's undoubtedly a lot bigger than any 'official' figures will be able to tell you.

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