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17 December 2008, 08:51

Debian developers vote on firmware

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The Debian Linux distribution is close to releasing Debian 5.0 "Lenny", but a thorny issue of firmware has come up and is to be resolved by a vote. At the centre of the debate is firmware and Debian's commitment to be a truly free and open source Linux release.

When some devices are initialised by the kernel and associated device drivers, firmware, in the form of a binary blob of code, may be transferred to the device to allow it to function. For example, a network card may need its own controller "booted" with firmware to process packets from the network. As these binary blobs may or may not be under a sufficiently free licence, or lack any source code, some have suggested that they should be removed from Debian. Others contend that the blobs are functional parts of the device and should be exempted from the Debian Social Contract.

The vote reflects the complexity of the debate; there are seven choices, ranging from no release until completely free, allowing proprietary firmware in, allowing it in, but planning to remove it, letting the release team decide, or removing the source code requirements for firmware. Removing the binary blobs could take some time and the resulting system would support fewer devices. Proponents of this say though, that in time, free software replacements for the firmware would be developed, or manufacturers would decide to release free versions of their firmware.

The vote started on Sunday and runs till Saturday, December 21st, after which time we should have a better idea what the plan for Debian 5.0 is. That is unless the voters choose option 7, "Further Discussion".


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