Ultimate Linux Box
Graphics Drivers and Open Source
Since the absorption of 3dfx, all three major graphics companies—ATI, NVIDIA and Matrox—have gone closed-source with their 3-D accelerated drivers. This development is distressing for several reasons. First, we now are dependent on the vendors to develop—and fix—the drivers, on whatever schedule they wish to follow. If they want to release drivers first for every other OS known to man and make us wait two years, or even ignore Linux entirely, that's their choice. Given the current barriers to market entry in the graphics field, there's not a lot you and I can do about it. Even if these companies choose to support us on a timely basis, we won't have access to a lot of things, including beta code. It was only by pulling CVS code that I made the Audigy 2 play.
A purist would point out that not only does releasing code increase the number of people that can debug your code by orders of magnitude, it also means it can be checked for funny business, which has been a topic of some interest in graphics drivers of late. Finally, there isn't much of a reason not to release the code; it's not like you can use it without the card. I don't know the official reasons behind keeping the drivers proprietary—I've been too busy trying to get them to work to find out. But I would like to see the reasons debated openly. I think the Linux community and the graphics people can negotiate an amicable, open settlement whereby we all can get what we need: the best drivers on the best cards on the best operating system. I suspect the first company to come to the table will see an improvement in its bottom line as well, because Linux folk tend to back up their principles with their hardware-buying budgets.
Glenn Stone is a Red Hat Certified Engineer, sysadmin, technical writer, cover model and general Linux flunkie. He has been hand-building computers for fun and profit since 1999, and he is a happy denizen of the Pacific Northwest.