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FOSS Goes to Washington, and Nvidia Keeps Its Driver Code to Itself

FOSS Goes to Washington, and Nvidia Keeps Its Driver Code to Itself

Linux bloggers weren't giving Nvidia any love after developer Andy Ritger told Phoronix it was unlikely the company would ever open source any of its cross-platform driver source code. In IT, "monopoly does not work very well," said blogger Robert Pogson. "Nvidia should not make itself a bottleneck for driver development."

By Katherine Noyes LinuxInsider ECT News Network
10/29/09 4:00 AM PT

You know it's going to be a good week when it kicks off with news that the Obama administration has officially embraced the open source content management system Drupal.

Sure enough, none other than the official WhiteHouse.gov site now uses the Drupal platform, ushering in a whole range of new benefits over the old, proprietary technology of days gone by.

Exciting? You bet. But that wasn't all!

DoD Memo

Just a few days later, the Department of Defense issued an almost glowingly positive memo on open source software -- soon to be posted, apparently, on an official DoD site.

Woo! FOSS, you're on a government roll! With fun like this, who needs Halloween?!

Linux bloggers, not surprisingly, were all over the news in no time.

'I Feel Strange'

"The government is acting intelligently. I feel strange," quipped Zarf on Slashdot, for example.

On a more serious note: "Anything funded by the federal government including private work should be considered the property of the people and thus released into the public domain," opined wizardforce.

"We, the public, should not be expected to pay twice for work done by the private sector," wizardforce added. "Either we pay for the work and have all of it released for us to utilize or the work remains proprietary and receives no funding from the public."

And, of course: "And thus another chair is thrown in Redmond," wrote hrimhari.

It seems worth noting that Obama's Drupal move came just days after Andy Updegrove's blog post calling for the administration to come out in favor of FOSS -- to which some LXer bloggers, for example, responded, "Highly unlikely."

Just goes to show, never underestimate the power of freedom!

An Nvidia Developer Speaks

Government breakthroughs aside, another interesting conversation came up on the blogs recently in response to a Phoronix interview with Nvidia developer Andy Ritger about the state of Linux graphics, gaming and drivers.

One of Ritger's revelations: The Linux graphics driver download rate at Nvidia.com is just 0.5 percent that of its Windows driver downloads.

Also notable: "I don't think we would ever open source any of our cross-platform driver source code," Ritger said.

More than 100 comments followed the eight-page article on Phoronix's site, and those were soon joined by another 300-plus on Slashdot.

'They Don't Believe in Open Source'

"They don't want to open source it because they don't believe in open source," wrote QuantumG on Slashdot, for example. "It's that simple. Hopefully this will kill the last of the NVIDIA apologists."

Given the frequency with which drivers in general and Nvidia in particular are mentioned as issues for some Linux users, the topic seemed to Linux Girl to be an important one. She took to the streets for more.

"What I took away from the interview was that supporting Linux is not a major burden for Nvidia, and that they are fairly uninterested in providing any help to the open source driver efforts," Slashdot blogger drinkypoo told LinuxInsider. "The Nvidia drivers represent major effort, and they have no incentive whatsoever to open that code at this point.

"If Nouveau were to develop features or performance in some areas that significantly outstripped the official binary drivers," on the other hand, "it might provide some actual motivation," drinkypoo added.

'Nvidia Doesn't Get Linux'

"Nvidia still doesn't get Linux, and wants to keep its precious Intellectual Property regardless of the harm it inflicts on customers," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack opined. "At the very least they should open source the modesetting/Direct Rendering, since that would mitigate most of the annoyance of dealing with Nvidia drivers."

Either way, "I really wish Microsoft and Apple would put their feet down and start demanding that video cards conform to hardware standards and then let the OS vendors build drivers for those," Mack told LinuxInsider.

"I can't tell you how many times I've had issues with vendor drivers causing issues on both Linux and Windows," he added.

'Monopoly Does Not Work Well'

Blogger Robert Pogson runs "(US)$50 cards at 1024x768" and is "very happy with the state of graphics in GNU/Linux," he told LinuxInsider.

Nevertheless, "the interview reveals a problem," Pogson asserted.

Specifically, "Nvidia is selling hardware but wants to keep the software that runs the hardware secret -- this tends to make them the single source of supply," he explained.

In IT, "monopoly does not work very well," Pogson added. "Nvidia should not make itself a bottleneck for driver development. If they revealed the complete source code, the kernel guys would gladly maintain the ABI and the Xorg guys would be happier, too."

Nvidia "should rely on patents to keep their hardware IP protected and use copyright to protect their code," he asserted. "They can publish the code under the GPL. It is of little use to a competitor because the competitor cannot duplicate their hardware."

In the meantime, "I will stick with ATI and run vesa driver in Xorg if I need to," Pogson added.

'Possible Patent Trolls'

Very likely, Nvidia is "worried that one or more pieces of the design might be infringing on someone's patents or copyrights, which is a serious problem we have right now," Slashdot blogger hairyfeet suggested.

"But I would argue that this shows what is an even greater problem with Linux and FLOSS, and that is the truly insane amount of work a company that doesn't wish to expose themselves to possible patent trolls has to do in order to provide drivers for Linux," hairyfeet told LinuxInsider. "Will a 5-year-old driver work in the latest distro 'as is'? Probably not, so companies either have to do like Nvidia, and constantly create new drivers, or more often simply choose to never support you."

There "shouldn't have to be any reason for the kernel developers to be the keeper of the drivers at all," he asserted. "Kernel developers should be ... oh, I don't know ... working on the kernel -- not dealing with printer drivers.

"It is 2009, and I can get a driver disc with Windows drivers on it and Mac drivers on it -- why in the name of all that is good can't we have Linux drivers on the same CD?" hairyfeet added.

Bad News for Users

"Nvidia has flat-out admitted that they will not release the kind of specs -- or provide the kind of support -- for open development that ATI has," Slashdot blogger David Masover pointed out.

"They believe their drivers have IP they need, and they're right: The difference between a $400 GeForce and a $4,000 Quadro is largely software," Masover told LinuxInsider. "This has been proven -- people have managed to get the Quadro drivers to run on GeForce, and the performance (and visual quality) is pretty much the same. The only difference is which features the driver enables."

It's bad news for users, however, he added.

'It Could Be So Much Better'

"Many problems with Linux stability on the desktop can be traced back to the proprietary Nvidia drivers, and no one outside Nvidia can fix them," he pointed out. "This is exactly the same problem as Windows users have with Microsoft and with most of their device drivers."

The worst that Intel users have to endure "is slow Flash video -- not good, but not as bad as the occasional crashes, corruption and other Very Bad Things that Nvidia brings to the table -- things you'd think we'd be able to leave back in the 90s," Masover added.

"I am grateful that I'm able to play games on Linux at all -- given that I dual-boot mostly to play games, I don't always expect Linux gaming to work as well as it does," he concluded. "But I also appreciate that it could be so much better. If ATI's open source drivers ever reach parity with Nvidia's proprietary drivers, my next video card will be an ATI."

Indeed, given the swelling ranks of Linux users today, it seems impossible to believe that there's no combination of standards, openness and IP protection that can serve both Nvidia's needs and those of its users. If Nvidia doesn't find that winning combination, it's a pretty safe bet that it won't be long before someone else will.


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