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Association Francophone des Utilisateurs de Logiciels Libres

French speaking Libre Software Users' Association

Promouvoir les logiciels libres ainsi que l'utilisation de standards ouverts.

FAQ for hardware and electronic components manufacturers

Frequently Asked Questions on drivers availability under any operating system (long version)

Philippe Coulonges, M.-A. Darche

AFUL (Association Francophone des Utilisateurs de Linux et des Logiciels Libres i.e. French speaking Linux and Free Software Users' Association)
APRIL (Association Pour la Promotion et la Recherche en Informatique Libre ie. Association for Promotion and Research in Libre Computing)

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, with no Front-Cover Texts, and with the no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License".

September 2001

Questions / Answers

1 Définitions
Q: What is GNU/Linux ?
Q: Why does one sometimes refer to GNU/Linux instead of Linux?
Q: What is a free license ?
Q: What is a non-free (or proprietary) license ?
2 Marketing points
Q: Is having a GNU/Linux support useful ?
Q: My customers are asking for Linux drivers, what can I do ?
Q: Can I hope a third party will spontaneously develop the drivers ?
Q: Can I avoid releasing the specifications of my product ?
Q: How can I make money if I give away my products ?
Q: What advantages are to be expected from Free Software, from Open Source Software ?
Q: Do I risk pressures on behalf of influent operating systems publishers ?
3 Precisions
Q: Who to contact for more information on Free Software and Open Source Software?
Q: My developers are not competent with Linux. What should I do ?
Q: Where to find some documentation on Linux drivers programming ?
Q: Is there a database listing Linux compatible hardware ?
Q: Do you advise a Free Software distribution in every case ?
Q: Which license to choose for distributing my drivers ?
Q: What policies have other manufacturers adopted ?
Q: Are there certification programs ?
Q: What is the meaning of the penguin pictures, seen in the computer press and on Internet ?
Q: May I use the logo of the penguin freely ? Where can I find it ?

1 Définitions

Q: What is GNU/Linux ?

A: GNU/Linux is a multiuser, multitask operating system which can execute on a large number of hardware platforms (Intel x86, PowerPC, Alpha, SPARC, ARM, etc.). The most important characteristic of this operating system, besides its technical qualities and its growing fame, lies in the fact that GNU/Linux is an assembly of Free Sotwares.

The GNU/Linux system will often be mentioned in this document, essentially because the problems mentioned presently concern many users of this system. But these problems stay valid for every operating system

Q: Why does one sometimes refer to GNU/Linux instead of Linux?

A: Introduced by Richard M. Stallman in 1984, GNU is a project of operating system consisting solely of Free Sotwares. The Linux kernel, a creation which began in 1991, is the last component that has allowed to achieve an autonomous operating system solely composed of Free Software. GNU/Linux is thus the conjunction of the project GNU and the Linux kernel. It is this set which is distributed today by Debian, Mandrake, RedHat, etc.

Q: What is a free license ?

A: A license can be designated under the generic name of ‘free license’ if it corresponds to the criteria of Free Software licences (a list is available on the FSF's site) or to Open Source Software licenses (a list is available on the on the Open Source Initiative's site)

Free Software licenses correspond to the criteria stated by Free Software definition. Open Source Software licenses correspond to the criteria stated in Open Source Software definition.

Q: What is a non-free (or proprietary) license ?

A: A ‘non-free’ license is a license which requires a transaction with the holder of the license in order to gain any right related to the software.

First of which is the right to use it, often conditioned by the payment of an amount of money. These licenses equally forbid the copying, the studying of the software's functioning, its modification and any arbitrary combination of these possibilities.

2 Marketing points

Q: Is having a GNU/Linux support useful ?

A: It will generate sells.

The market is sizeable, and its potential is huge. GNU/Linux is the only operating system presently gaining market shares over all its competitors. It is favored by many computer specialists, who are prescriptors for harware choices. It is now commercially and financially backed by the biggest manufacturers (SUN, IBM, HP, SGI, DELL, etc.). Some goverments are studying the use of Free Software as a standard for their administration (France, Poland, Argentina, China, ...)

Q: My customers are asking for Linux drivers, what can I do ?

A: Possible choices are :

  • Announce there is no support for your hardware

  • Develop drivers and release them in a binary form (without giving away the sources)

  • Publish your hardware interface specifications, thus letting third parties write and distribute drivers on their own.

  • Develop drivers under an Open Source or Free Sofware license.

    This approach insures fast availability of the drivers. It also permits to share with third parties (companies or individuals) the effort of maintainance, debug, documention and portage. In this model, choosing a license which guarantees that the improvements of the drivers will be distributed according to the same terms is crucial for the company In this way no competitor can appropriate the modifications it finances.

  • Publish “mixed” drivers

    It consists in publishing a part of the drivers according to the previous logic, and supplying the rest of the drivers under a binary form and non-free license (see the second alternative).

    It allows access to basic features as well as realization of an interface with the operating system, thanks to a Free Software adaptable to evolutions of the system. Certain “advanced” features remain hidden in exclusive, fixed modules which do not need to evolve with the rest of the system. It can provide a satisfactory solution in cases where part of the product originates from a third-party supplier and is under a non-free license. It is a choice notably made by certain graphic board manufacturers.

  • Publicly spread the specifications AND develop the drivers, then distribute them under a free license.

    This is an ideal solution for the customer. It is also a very good configuration for the manufacturer, except in some particular cases (see “ Do you advise a Free Software distribution in every case ? ”).

Q: Can I hope a third party will spontaneously develop the drivers ?

A: Yes, by giving away the specifications for your products and making the announcement. Volunteers (companies or individuals) can then take care of developments.

But this approach has some drawbacks :

  • The numbers of developers will partly rely on luck.

  • Volunteers work at their own pace.

  • Therefore, the drivers may not be available in time for important dates (convention, commercial release, ...).

  • No sale can be expected before the drivers are available.

  • No control is exercised on the quality of resulting software.

Q: Can I avoid releasing the specifications of my product ?

A: Yes. By developing and releasing binary drivers.

Advantages of keeping secret the specifications are :

  • protecting your products from cloning

  • hiding weaknesses in low quality products.

Drawbacks are :
  • being deprieved of help and support from users for maintenance.

  • a deprecated image in the eye of the Free Software and Open Source Software communities

  • a higher cost in development

  • a market limited to initially chosen platforms

As opposed to other operating systems, GNU/Linux executes on a large number of hardware platforms. It is difficult to test them all without the assistance of a community. Furthermore, versions of the Linux kernel are released on a more steady rythm than those of the other operating systems.

GNU/Linux is not the only free operating system. If the others can seem unimportant in market shares, they exist nevertheless, and their users wish to dispose of the necessary resources for proper operating of their machines.

Finally, as explained by the founder of the Open Source Software movement Eric S. Raymond, in his article The Magic Cauldron : ‘Today, the time your competitors' engineers would need to spend copying and understanding the copy is a substantial portion of the product cycle, time they are not spending innovating or differentiating their own product. Plagiarism is a trap you want your competitors to fall into.’. The current rhythm of the electronic development renders the practice of cloning ineffective.

Q: How can I make money if I give away my products ?

A: In your case, the software is not your product. It's a service. Your product is your hardware.

Software drivers production made by electronic manufacturers is a recent phenomenon. Previously the manufacturers spread Hardware Interface Specifications, letting the responsibility of developing drivers for operating systems in the hands of their editors and/or of the users.

This policy was not satisfactory because it implied that the drivers for the same material could be developed several times by various customers, which is technically and commercially ineffective. It is thus under the pressure of their customers that the manufacturers financed the development of the drivers. However this new system showed another flaw : it favored the appeareance of monopolies which then exercised an unbearable pressure on customers and suppliers as well.

Today, as Internet eases the broadcasting of projects and free licenses bring guarantees on their accessibility and their evolution, the involvement of the manufacturers doesn't need to be as important.

Q: What advantages are to be expected from Free Software, from Open Source Software ?

A: Software can be adapted by users. It therefore remains in adequacy with their needs. Minor, frustrating bugs can be corrected, new ideas will appear.

Free Software is a guarantee that the product will last. Should the furnisher disappear, software code could still be maintained. In the decision of purchase, it is an additional guarantee for the customer, thus a selling argument for the vendor.

Q: Do I risk pressures on behalf of influent operating systems publishers ?

A: Some have an egocentric notion of the free-market economy. To that day, no case of that nature has been reported.

3 Precisions

Q: Who to contact for more information on Free Software and Open Source Software?

Q: My developers are not competent with Linux. What should I do ?

A: There are several solutions:

  • Pay for their training

  • Recruit new employees who are competent in this field

  • Address specialized service companies

    A list of service companies in software engineering specialized in Free Software or Open Source Software is available on the AFUL site.

Q: Is there a database listing Linux compatible hardware ?

A: Yes, ZDNet maintains the Linux Hardware Database. This database is very complete and every manufacturer can reference his hardware there.

Moreover, the site can be contacted by the manufacturers who wish to have their products evaluated in connection with Free Software based operating systems such as GNU/Linux.

Q: Do you advise a Free Software distribution in every case ?

A: No.

  • It might not be in the best interest of downmarket products to display their mediocrity in broad daylight. A binary driver is then more suited.

  • The informer software, the hidden functions also dislike exposure. This element is a criterion which will tilt companies and governments towards choosing manufacturers who will opt for transparency.

Q: Which license to choose for distributing my drivers ?

A: Many software licenses already exist. You can use them for the distribution of your drivers (see also ‘ What is a free license ? ’).

It is a rare case when a company feels the need to engage in the redaction of a new free license. Creating and maintaining a license is generally a waste of time. Furthermore, it complicates the task of companies and individuals who decide to work on your drivers.

The most famous licenses are the GNU General Public License (GPL), the GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL), the modified BSD licenses and the Mozilla Public License (MPL).

As a rule of thumb, the GPL will always be preferred when nothing opposes it. If external constraints make this choice impossible, the best is to contact a specialized structure to expose your case (see also ‘ Who to contact for more information on Free Software and Open Source Software? ’). Factors determining the choice of a license are numerous and have important consequences, to discuss it is the best way to find a well fitted solution.

Q: What policies have other manufacturers adopted ?

A: ATI, Creative, Epson, HP, IBM, Intel, Kodak, Matrox (amongst others) publish hardware specification for a vast majority of their products. These manufacturers are also involved in the development of the drivers for their hardware (fully or partially). Finally, they distribute their drivers under a free license (fully or partially), see also ‘ Publish “mixed” drivers ’). This position insures them a maximal coverage of the market, while assuring the best possible support for their products.

The following manufacturers supply only binary versions (under non-free license) of their drivers, but for a large number of operating systems, including GNU/Linux: Lexmark, NVidia, Olitec. These manufacturers satisfy a large number of consumers. But by dismissing the help the Free Software and Open Source Software community of developers could supply, they endure a more important effort to keep their drivers up to date with the new versions of operating systems.

An inherent problem of the binary drivers is their lack of ‘modularity’. Being usually modules for the kernel, they can, if they are badly conceived, cause the failure of a whole machine. So editors of free software distributions hesitate to put modules which risk entailling a big load for their support services. An emblematic example are the NVIDIA modules for GNU/Linux, which, in spite of their recognized performances, are not included in the Mandrake 8.0 distribution. As a conclusion, with such an approach, the manufacturers may feel their work is wasted.

The following companies supply drivers only for a limited number of operating system: Guillemot, Hercule, Canon. These manufacturers limit their market and tarnish their image.

Q: Are there certification programs ?

A: Yes, the Open Hardware Certification Program . It is a recent initiative, but it already gathers a fair number of affiliates .

Q: What is the meaning of the penguin pictures, seen in the computer press and on Internet ?

A: The penguin is the mascot of the Linux kernel. This picture is widespread because internet users and Web sites using GNU/Linux are numerous there.

Q: May I use the logo of the penguin freely ? Where can I find it ?

A: Yes you can use it freely. You can even use a modified version freely.

Linux Online references the various Linux logos, the original penguin and its by-products.


A manufacturer has a strong interest in using free licenses for the developments of his drivers, whatever the target operating system.

He also should develop drivers himself, or at least their initial version because of :

  • his better knowledge of the product,

  • his need to insure quality,

  • the necessity of their availability from the commercial launch on,

  • the natural influence the initiator of a free project has on its evolution.

But the release of a product means neither the end of its life, nor the stopping of the development and services which surround it. Once introduced, the drivers are better maintained according to the Free Software model.

Indeed, that model :

  • gives access to improvements brought by the users

  • allows compatibility of the product with a much wider range of hardware and operating systems.

  • improves the product and its manufacturer's image within the community of computer specialists.

  • decreases the maintenance costs of the project.

  • reassures buyers and decision-makers by removing fears related to possible hidden features in the product (Trojan horses, backdoors and the like).

As was shown, this functioning mode brings real competitive advantages, while improving quality of the proposed services.


This document exists in several languages and under various formats :


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