Last month we reported on VIA's new open-source driver efforts that was announced at the LF Austin Summit. This new strategy involves VIA providing the open-source community with NDA-free hardware specifications, code, and other resources -- in a similar fashion to what ATI/AMD and Intel have been doing for some time now. However, not everyone has been satisfied by this announcement and their new Linux website isn't yet exactly useful. We explore the VIA Linux situation in this article as well as sharing what two open-source developers have to say.
In the press release concerning VIA's new "open-source driver development initiative", they mention "As the first step in this initiative, VIA will open its official VIA Linux website at http://linux.via.com.tw this month. The site will initially host drivers, technical documentation, source code, and information regarding the VIA CN700, CX700/M, CN896 and the new VIA VX800 chipsets, with plans to add official forums and support for more products later on in the year." The website was opened up that month (April 30th to be exact), but the site is rather bare. The only drivers being offered on this Linux website right now are two Chrome/Unichrome drivers. The only distributions supported from this Linux portal are Ubuntu 8.04 LTS and SuSE Linux Enterprise 10 SP1. The source to these VIA graphics drivers aren't even being distributed from this area, but just the pre-compiled binary blobs. When clicking on the "Legacy" menu item you're then taken to a page on the VIA Arena website -- where more Linux distributions are listed (Red Hat, Red Flag, Fedora, and Mandriva) -- with a few other drivers but all in their binary form and some of them being useless for those distributions already shipping with VIA SATA and IDE support, etc. So far, VIA Technologies has yet to publish any new technical documentation or source-code. The Linux bug-tracking portion of their Linux portal isn't even active and according to the most recent press release, it will not be active until later this year. In addition, their Linux forums are still "under construction" and likewise there are no established mailing lists.
Among those that have been taking this VIA announcement worth a grain of salt have been the community developers who have been working on various VIA drivers but without any support from the company itself. One of those developers -- and the one that started the Unichrome Project -- is Luc Verhaegen. Luc is now known as one of the Novell/SuSE masterminds behind the development of the RadeonHD driver, but he does continue to work on the xf86-video-unichrome driver. He has witnessed VIA's attempted open-source/Linux offerings in the past and has seen them all not come to fruition. He believes that VIA's latest open-source attempts are just more non-sense and that VIA will continue in their binary traditions. In an IRC message to Phoronix, Luc had went on to add, "this will change nothing...they will keep on pushing their un-maintainable code, with binaries included, and will not give users any support at all...they will keep on being years behind with their codebase and binary drivers...they will still only ship half the code they have themselves: via's binaries tend to have a whole lot more symbols than their source base...(tv encoders and tv decoders are in there: saa711x, fs45x, etc)...really, hot air again, like in 2006, when XGI made an announcement." More on XGI can be read here. Most recently, Luc Verhaegen had shared with us that VIA's Timothy Chen (who was VIA's representative at the Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit), had contacted him last October for ideas to improve VIA's open-source image and ultimately to try to reproduce the hype caused by AMD's open-source strategy.
Another developer that has been weary of this announcement is Xavier Bachelot, who is a developer for the OpenChrome project. The OpenChrome project seeks to create an open-source video driver for various VIA Unichrome IGPs and is a fork of the original Unichrome driver. In a message to Phoronix, Xavier had shared the following:
I'm a bit puzzled at the VIA announcement, as we've been trying to communicate with them without real success for a long time now. I think their announcement is an excellent opportunity to bring some light on our project and I certainly wouldn't want them to claim that they support Linux and FOSS, like they did several times in the past, and don't put their money where their mouth is.
Xavier later added:
VIA never really understood how opensource development works and made their thing on their own, without participating in upstream xorg, drm, mesa, etc... They even forked xine and mplayer to add them the ability to use their proprietary mpeg decode binary blob, never provided them a patch, never tried to communicate with their devs, and ultimately, didn't maintain their fork properly (security...). Their last anti-opensource action is to provide binary only Chrome9 3D drivers. There have been several announcements and advertising campaigns from VIA in the past, saying their product are linux ready and have opensource drivers. This is simply not true as can be easily seen at various places on the web, most notably VIA own forums, and from the fact that no distro are shipping the VIA provided drivers. There have been numerous communication attempts with VIA, but they never showed a great interested, were hard to convince to provide docs even under the terms of their NDA, took very long to answer to mails, and even completely stop communication for months. The latest announcement looks like a step in the right direction, but until I'll see some real facts, it will remain promises.
At this time in AMD's open-source strategy, they had already introduced the RadeonHD driver with support for their two latest GPU product families and released over 900 pages of specifications and was without any Non-Disclosure Agreements. By that time we had also received positive messages about AMD's strategy from many notable X.Org developers (Open-Source Developers Speak Out About AMD) and Mark Shuttleworth had even commented as this was right after AMD had introduced their new fglrx driver. Since then, AMD has of course continued releasing new documentation (even 3D documentation) surrounding their latest graphics processors and even going back and releasing documentation on their older GPUs. There is constant open-source work going into both the Radeon and RadeonHD drivers. Granted, from all of the support, this has led to some fragmentation and little collaboration as both open-source development teams have contrasting views over AtomBIOS.
We are just short of 30 days since this VIA announcement was made and so far, we have little more than an announcement... The "VIA Linux Portal" is just distributing a binary-only Chrome 9 driver for two distributions and the VIA bug tracking software isn't yet established nor any mailing lists. Though if VIA is serious about their open-source efforts, we have to wonder why they would be launching their own bug tracker instead of utilizing the mailing list and BugZilla resources of FreeDesktop.org and X.Org, like AMD and Intel. If VIA is genuinely interested in enabling open-source developers around VIA platforms, they certainly aren't working as fast as AMD in making documentation and other resources available -- even with AMD having just two primary employees dedicated to this open-source sanitization work. We are still hopeful, however, that this announcement of VIA's will actually pan out unlike their open-source announcements from the past. When VIA does make any further announcements or releases any source-code/technical documentation, we will be sure to cover it. We're also still waiting on a hopeful announcement from NVIDIA.