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03/01/2005 Archived Entry: "The FreeBIOS initiative"

The indefatigable Richard Stallman, champion of software libre, is now promoting development of a Free BIOS for personal computers.

The BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) is the software that runs your computer from the time you switch it on to the time your operating system boots. It also describes some of your computer's hardware to the operating system. In the old days this was stored on read-only memory chips, permanently installed on your motherboard...part of the hardware that you couldn't do anything about. But most modern computers use rewritable chips for the BIOS, and have the option of loading a new BIOS. Hence the push for a free and open-source alternative.

Why is this important?

1. EULAs. The companies that provide BIOS updates may choose to do so only if you accept their restrictive and privacy-invading End User License Agreements. (I predict the day will come when you have to accept a EULA for your original BIOS.)

2. BIOS restrictions. Some laptop computers have been reported to have BIOS's installed that restrict what add-on cards you can install. (You may want to avoid HP laptops for the time being. Thanks to Hugh B. for this item.)

3. Trusted Computing. This awful initiative is not dead. One way to implement trusted computing -- which means, computers that the manufacturers can trust to take control away from you -- is to put it in the BIOS. The manufacturers love this idea....you can dump Windows and install Linux, but can you reprogram your motherboard?

Well, if the FreeBIOS project succeeds, yes, you will be able to reprogram your motherboard, with an open, non-restrictive, and non-invasive alternative.

This will require some cooperation from the hardware makers, though, and this is where you come in. Most of the manufacturers don't give a fig for freedom or privacy, but they are sensitive to market pressure. So Stallman suggests:

You can help our campaign by buying AMD CPU chips and not buying Intel, and by publishing statements about what you're doing. Likewise, buy motherboards that support free BIOS. See http://www.fsf.org/campaigns/free-bios.html for information on which companies cooperate and which models and motherboards are supported.

When you do this, tell your friends and your coworkers. And please tell us, too--please write to bios@gnu.org to tell us that you have chosen what to buy because it supports a free BIOS.

You can also help our campaign by writing to manufacturers such as Intel, expressing your criticism. Please send a copy of your message to bios@gnu.org, so we can monitor the support. Calm but strong disapproval with an intention to take action accordingly is more effective than rage.

We would like to offer positive inducements as well as pressure. Our idea is to endorse, for a period of time, the first manufacturer in a given category of machine (for instance, laptops) that cooperates fully with free BIOS. To make this offer effective, we would like to collect a long list of people who say they intend to make their choices according to our endorsements. See http://www.fsf.org/campaigns/free-bios.html for how to add your name to this campaign.

Boycotting Intel is easy for me; I've been favoring AMD ever since I learned (the hard way) that "Celeron" is Intelese for "glacial." I will be directing any new purchases so as to support the FreeBIOS campaign. I encourage you to do likewise.


P.S. The FreeBIOS initiative is new, which means the list of compatible manufacturers is currently short. Check back often...say, when you're ready to purchase.

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