Color me excited. AMD, the microprocessor company that is Intel’s chief competition and recently bought ATI, one of two major players in the graphics gard market, has announced that it will release open source drivers for its line of video cards. This is excellent, excellent news. Let me try to explain what this means to the non-techie audience.
The main thrust behind the GNU/Linux movement is free, open source, libre software. This means you can see the source code, you can redistribute the source code, you can modify the source code, and you can redistribute those modifications. Needless to say, the ramifications of these freedoms are extensive, and are the major cause for GNU/Linux’s current success. By 1992 Richard Stallman and the GNU project had put together all of the major components of a totally free operating system except for the kernel. With the addition of the Linux kernel to GNU in 1992, forming GNU/Linux, the world saw its first completely free modern operating system.
Unfortunately, there’s been a bit of backslide as of late. You can run your completely free operating system, but you won’t get very good performance out of your video cards. This is because up until now, ATI and nVidia, the only real players in the high-performance graphics card market, have not released free versions of their graphics card drivers, nor have they released the specifications on how to create our own drivers. So reverse-engineered free drivers are out there, they are just bad, and don’t take good advantage of any of the added power in the last few generations of graphics cards. So if you want to play a recent 3D commercial videogame under GNU/Linux, you really do need to use the proprietary drivers.
But the proprietary drivers have their own disadvantages. They aren’t as high quality as the Windows or Mac OS X drivers, but without the source code, we cannot fix their flaws. And they force us to do certain things that we do not wish done: for instance, the nVidia proprietary driver forces video-out output to enable Macrovision DRM, which degrades video quality. Those of us accustomed to using free software are driven crazy by this kind of nonsense, because, with free software, you have the freedom and the ability to modify the source code exactly as you see fit, so the software only does what you want it to do, and it certainly doesn’t do what a corporation is trying to force you to do if you don’t want it.
Thus, I am overjoyed by AMD’s announcement of upcoming open source drivers for their graphics cards. This will be a huge boon to free software everywhere. 3D applications (especially games) will run with much better performance. The only thing we need to watch out for is AMD’s clever use of the phrase “open source” rather than free. Open source does not always mean free, as Richard Stallman has pointed out. Microsoft has released some of its code under its own “open source” licenses, which don’t actually allow the essential free software freedoms, like being able to redistribute ones modifications. If AMD releases their drivers in a truly free way, that will be excellent. If they release it “open source” but with non-free restrictions, it will be rubbish. I’m hoping they go the free route, and once they do, nVidia will really have no choice but to follow suit.