Linux and Vista users share driver pain

Linux kernel developers offer free support to struggling hardware manufacturers

Customers are getting annoyed. They spent good money on the latest and greatest PC peripherals, only to find out that the hardware is only partially supported on their operating system of choice. Without the kernel drivers necessary to power them, some of the best features of the new toys are going unused.

Oh, and just to be clear: The OS we're talking about is Microsoft Windows.

Hardware vendors seem to be having a tough time getting up to speed with Windows Vista, the latest iteration of Microsoft's client OS. Drivers have yet to emerge for many products that have worked for years under XP, and those drivers that do exist are buggy or missing features.

Nvidia is just one example. For months, it has been selling high-end graphics cards with a label on the box that reads, "Windows Vista Ready." And yet, although a rudimentary graphics driver ships with the Vista install disc, many of the advanced features supplied by Nvidia's ForceWare software have yet to be implemented for the new OS. The downloadable drivers Nvidia makes available on its Web site add some functionality but are still beta software.

The situation is frustrating enough for some customers that they're ready to take action. A Web site suggesting a class action lawsuit against Nvidia has over 1,300 registered users as I write this, and its forums are filling up with tales of woe from customers who aren't getting the capabilities they were promised when they bought their video cards. A sister site is collecting user accounts of bugs in Nvidia's drivers.

Given how many other companies are similarly under-delivering on hardware drivers for Vista, it's enough to make you wonder why more vendors don't do more to support Linux. If writing drivers for Vista is really this much of a chore, getting open source drivers for Linux will seem trivial by comparison.

In January, the Linux kernel developers offered hardware manufacturers a straightforward proposition: Free driver development. All a vendor has to do is supply specifications to its products, and the community will do the work.

Of course, this is what has been going on in the Linux world all along, with or without the support of the vendors. Under this new program, however, the kernel maintainers are explicitly reaching out to manufacturers to encourage them to use the community as a resource.

The benefits for manufacturers are compelling. Not only do they not need to spend a dime on actual driver development, but any drivers produced will eventually be distributed with the stock Linux kernel and supported by the community. That includes the so-called enterprise Linux vendors, such as Novell and Red Hat.

What's more, a little hardware support under Linux goes a long way. For example, anyone who's impressed with Vista's "Aero Glass" user interface should check out the amazing eye candy that's possible with Beryl , a new UI layer under development for Linux. And Beryl's hardware requirements don't even approach what Vista demands. Why wouldn't vendors want to support an OS that gives users the most bang for their hardware buck?

Unfortunately, still far too few vendors choose to make their hardware specs available to open source developers. Instead of relying on the help and support of the Linux community, they offer up closed, binary-only drivers, developed in-house. Often, these drivers are only of beta quality or don't offer the full functionality that's available under Windows XP.

In other words, Vista users: The Linux community feels your pain. Maybe you'd care to check out the progress we've been making on this side of the fence?

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Neil McAllister

InfoWorld
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