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The Fallacy Behind Open-Source GPU Drivers, Documentation

Free Software

Published on 06 January 2011 09:27 PM EST
Written by Michael Larabel in Free Software
118 Comments

One of the points that Linux users commonly say in lobbying hardware vendors to provide open-source drivers and/or documentation -- particularly for GPU drivers -- is that the open-source community will take the released code or documents and from there develop it into a reliable, working open-source Linux driver. However, that isn't exactly true.

In response to this afternoon's article about VIA's Linux graphics / open-source strategy being dead, there's responses like: "What is the reason behind not releasing source code for the S3 graphics driver? If any source is being released it will most likely be hammered in shape by the community." and "Why not ask him to open source their Windows driver? Third parties could then write a Linux driver based on it." and "Release the specs. You do not need to have the manpower or the Linux knowledge. Release the specs (completely) to the community. There ARE devs out there that will take care of it. But do not frustrate them by NDAs, incomplete specs and other nastyness." And there's many other comments like that any time insert any hardware vendor name that doesn't have open-source drivers gets mentioned.

While this strategy works for some vendors and hardware drivers, it doesn't always work -- especially for graphics processors. Even for the open-source NVIDIA and ATI/AMD open-source drivers, they are lacking development manpower for implementing all available features and ensuring a robust driver that can compete with their proprietary counterparts. None of the open-source drivers even have full OpenGL 3/4 support yet. Since AMD's open-source strategy came into existence, there's been few new developers to X.Org / Mesa and the work is largely written by the same slim set of developers.

If there were hordes of open-source developers idling by that are capable of writing GPU drivers, they would already be reverse-engineering the binary blobs and working out features like multi-card support, OpenGL 3/4, impeccable power management, and other interesting features. There would also not be dormant open-source drivers like the XGI X.Org driver, which has basically been laid to rest ever since Ian Romanick joined Intel. There's a shortage of Linux graphics / X.Org developers, not a surplus.

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About The Author
Michael Larabel is the principal author of Phoronix.com and founded the web-site in 2004 with a focus on enriching the Linux hardware experience and being the largest web-site devoted to Linux hardware reviews, particularly for products relevant to Linux gamers and enthusiasts but also commonly reviewing servers/workstations and embedded Linux devices. Michael has written more than 10,000 articles covering the state of Linux hardware support, Linux performance, graphics hardware drivers, and other topics. Michael is also the lead developer of the Phoronix Test Suite, Phoromatic, and OpenBenchmarking.org automated testing software. He can be followed via and or contacted via .
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