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Proprietary Parts in OLPC Project Draw Criticism 247

Posted by Zonk
from the not-entirely-open dept.
An anonymous reader writes "The Jem Report is running a story about the recent controversy surrounding the hardware used in OLPC laptops. Some devices require NDA's to write drivers, and some parts require firmware that cannot be freely redistributed. Richard Stallmann and Theo de Raadt oppose the use of such devices. Jim Getty defends OLPC's choice (de Raadts response). Jem Matzan has interviewed all sides and published the answers."
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Proprietary Parts in OLPC Project Draw Criticism

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  • by mzs (595629)
    In case you were wondering, I was.
    • Do we know why they think kids *NEED* laptops? It seems very ... western ... to me to think that kids need laptops? I was a kid once, there was no such thing as laptops at that time, I got along just fine.

      I did have working sanitation, an electrical grid, viable farming and transportation infrastructures and there were no wars or genocides going on. Seems like the're going about it a bit backwards.

      • by deragon (112986) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @09:47AM (#16377141) Homepage Journal
        "I did have working sanitation, an electrical grid, viable farming and transportation infrastructures"... do you notice that any of the elements you are listing cost more than $100 to provide to a child?

        Of course you are right, but the point is that we hope to get a lot of bang for the buck with the OLPC project. The laptop could be a great educational tool. Also, books could be provided electronicaly, thus saving on the costs of books and paper, which after a few years of schooling, is not negligeable.
        • "I did have working sanitation, an electrical grid, viable farming and transportation infrastructures"... do you notice that any of the elements you are listing cost more than $100 to provide to a child?

          Not if you amortize them over an entire village, state, or country of children and you don't insist on the highest technology to provide it. I'm pretty sure that a lot of the children being talked about here could also use the same $100 for food for six months.

      • by erroneus (253617)
        Do you ride a horse to work? I'm pretty sure your great-great-grandfather got along just fine before the invention of the automobile...

        Get my point? If the world is to advance technologically, we can't really afford to have a set of people who aren't educated and equipped to the level of everyone else. The greater the division, the worse things become.
        • by m0rph3us0 (549631)
          Why can't we?

          If they don't like the fact that they have no technology perhaps they should stop being leeches and invent their own instead of flying planes into buildings because they can't compete.

          Having all people educated to the same level means a) a massive waste of resources or b) not educating people who really need it. Smart people need education, dumb people don't.

          African and Arab nations seem to import western weapons just fine. Perhaps one day they will realize its better to buy farm equiptment, et
          • Actually, it makes a certain amount of business sense to try and bring some level of education and "civilization" to the Third World. You don't hear about these motivations as much, because people like to concentrate on those moral impulses that make them feel good about themselves, but there are sound economic reasons for investing in development there.

            You can make a lot more money off of a country as a trading partner than just as a weapons market. In the former case there's actually wealth created there,
      • The problem is not that these kids don't have laptops, it is that the western world does have laptops. Well, computers and internet access. A lot of things that we do today would not really be feasible without computers and the net. Thus, without computers or some other advantage, these third world countries will find themselves unable to compete.

        This is not an undocumented phenomenon. War can easily be carried out without guns, look at most of our history. However, once somebody has guns, unless oth
        • That is the best description of why OLPC is needed that I've read. I was kind of on the fence before, "Cool, but do they *really* need it?"

          I don't see a problem with *firmware* blobs - provided they have an eternal and unlimited license for use. Blobs are a security problem when they run in the kernel (e.g. nvidia, wireless drivers). Firmware blobs are just a way to save the cost of a ROM. (High speed chips typical copy ROM to RAM rather than run from ROM, because RAM is faster.) I still haven't figu

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by wild_berry (448019)
        The goal is portable infrastructure, simple enough that children can learn about computers and learn to develop software systems, and even give Free Software a leg up in under-developed nations. I suspect it was what the tech crowd could do while everyone else was trying to Make Poverty History. One final thought: if you didn't learn to program your 8-bit computer (or whatever the alternative, perhaps it was an OLPC 2B1), would you be a programmer today?
      • by bigpat (158134)
        I did have working sanitation, an electrical grid, viable farming and transportation infrastructures and there were no wars or genocides going on. Seems like the're going about it a bit backwards.

        I think that you are overlooking the part where people had to learn how to build for you that working sanitation, an electrical grid, viable farming and transportation. Most countries have the people and natural resources to better the lives of all their people, but what they most lack is communication and the bas
  • Theo's right (Score:3, Interesting)

    by c0d3h4x0r (604141) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @08:54AM (#16376683) Homepage Journal
    Theo's absolutely right. The masses depend on OSS developers to maintain the drivers when a device manufacturer drops the ball (which they always do at some point), and the developers need complete device documentation to do that right.

    • Re:Theo's right (Score:4, Insightful)

      by diegocgteleline.es (653730) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @09:39AM (#16377075)
      Yes. But open source drivers are a BIG step ahead. I _wish_ that all hardware companies would release open source drivers without specs.

      I mean, Theo has critized intel for not releasing specs and releasing instead just open source drivers for lots of their products. There're tons of companies that will even sue you if you try to reverse engineer their hardware devices but hey, because we're the OSS leaders and we've nothing better to do, let's critize the companies that do release opensource drivers and no specs, instead of wasting all your efforts into the ones that don't do even _that_.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by vhogemann (797994)
      Exactly,

      Its not like there is only one wifi chipset vendor, Marvell was picked probably because they offered the lowest price at the beginning of the project. But I can see others offering even lower prices just to be able to profit from the good PR that comes from helping this project.

      As Theo pointed out, there are several vendors that offer chipsets with similar functionality AND support open drivers.

      And its important to keep this project as open as possible, because it should be like an standart platform
  • by Homology (639438) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @09:05AM (#16376757)
    is distribution rights of the firmware and documentation, not source code. The "defender" make a big point about vendors not wanting to release source code for firmware, but that is not what is asked for.

    This is a common misunderstanding on Slashdot as well, and is seen every time OpenBSD uses public pressure (after months and years of private e-mail correspondance has failed) to get hardware vendors give hardware documentation (freely, not under NDA) and reasonable distribution rights of firmware. Actually, it is quite sad to see so post extolling the glory of GPL and in the next sentence demands the latest binary only driver.

  • by suv4x4 (956391) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @09:05AM (#16376767)
    The chip in question has unique features that no other chip on the market has. Mesh networks and extremely low power consumption.

    In other words, good or bad, the part is NOT replaceable without harming the end product significantly.

    If there's concern that Marvell (the chip maker) will randomly drop support for their product at one point of time, things should not be left to guesses but this should simply and plainly be covered in the contracts.

    I also am susprised at the opinion that OLPC is targeted at OSS community. It has never been isn't and won't be. The goal is efficient, capable product using efficient solutions to solve a concrete proplem, of children having laptops with network connectivity for education, discussions, information exchange, communication and so on.

    Don't forget: not everything proprietary is evil. If WindowsCE would provide much better and cheaper solution, OLPC would use it without thinking twice about it. Windows CE in fact *was* considered briefly at a point.
    • I also am susprised at the opinion that OLPC is targeted at OSS community. It has never been isn't and won't be. The goal is efficient, capable product using efficient solutions to solve a concrete proplem, of children having laptops with network connectivity for education, discussions, information exchange, communication and so on.

      If it's not, than why aren't they using OS X [wsj.com]?

      According to their manifesto [laptop.org], they are indeed targetting OSS. Maybe not the OSS community, but that community's ideals.
      • by Homology (639438)
        According to their manifesto, they are indeed targetting OSS. Maybe not the OSS community, but that community's ideals.

        Sadly, NDA and binary drivers are accepted by a large part of that community.

    • Windows CE in fact *was* considered briefly at a point. ...but rejected. It turned out to be evil after all.
    • If there's concern that Marvell (the chip maker) will randomly drop support for their product at one point of time, things should not be left to guesses but this should simply and plainly be covered in the contracts.

      I understand your point about the utility of the Marvell part. The contract idea is also good, but I'm not sure it's doable. Setting aside whether or not the chip maker would be willing to be so encumbered, there are plenty of issues that a contract won't remedy. The biggest in my mind is t

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by LurkerXXX (667952)
      It isn't 'targeted at the OSS community'.

      It's proclaiming that it is OSS. All the while, they are including lots of proprietary stuff in it. They are riding on the OSS coattails. If they weren't harping how the were Open, I don't think they'd be getting the flak they are.

      If you are proclaiming being 'Open' is one of the big bonuses and selling points of what you are doing, you probably really ought to put in some real effort to actually being open. Otherwise, I think I'd shut up about proclaiming how 'Op
  • by jg (16880) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @09:06AM (#16376771) Homepage
    That much of the silicon we're building *hasn't even taped out yet* (we're testing FPGA versions before they become ASIC's right now). Yet open source drivers for the hardware are already publically available (e.g. NAND driver, camera driver, SD driver).
                                                        - Jim Gettys
  • by Opportunist (166417) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @09:09AM (#16376795)
    I can very well understand why some device manufacturers and software manufacturers require tight NDAs, but I cannot support that motion.

    Why does MS have a de facto monopoly on the OS market? Because their software is the best? Don't make me laugh. Because it is the most stable? *smirk* Because it is the most convenient? *pets Apple*

    No. Because everyone grew up with it, knows how to use it and, well, old dogs don't really enjoy learning new tricks.

    Now, in Africa, we're back to base one. Anything or anyone could get a hold of people who have never had a computer before and have no preferences because they are "used" to a certain flavor or appearance of the OS. There, every OS, every piece of hardware is on equal ground, provided it's affordable.

    NDAs and CS software would start to build the foundation of yet another monopoly there. With OS, it is way harder, CS gives you an edge over your competitors. And once the people get "used" to having this kind of chip or that kind of software on their PC, the lock in has started.

    So even if it means only 90 out of 100 kids instead of all of them get a PC, OS is the right way to choose in the long run. Just trying to push a computer into every hand right now is quite shortsighted, simply because with CS you're just handing over yet another market to vendor lock in.
    • While I agree with your post, this debate isn't about open source vs closed source. It's really about open documentation vs closed documentation.

      1. Theo doesn't care so much whether or not the firmware is closed, as long as documentation is available without an NDA, so that anyone can write and maintain a driver, and as long as the binary firmware is redistributable.
      2. Jim Getty has made clear that work is under way to create open source firmware so that the Marvell solution will in fact be completely open s
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by cgenman (325138)
      What is the primary goal of the project, and the secondary?

      If your goal is to put computers in the hands of people because it empowers them to explore their world, then that is your goal. If your goal is the spread of open source software, then that is your goal.

      Clearly the project is dealing with issues above and beyond "do we use Windows or Linux?" Rather, they're asking "Is there an open alternative to this chipset that doesn't use 5x the power?" And the answer is simply "no." by going with the alter
      • by swillden (191260) * <shawn-ds@willden.org> on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @09:53AM (#16377211) Homepage Journal

        When was the last time people felt locked-in by device drivers?

        You're kidding, right? Device drivers are one of the largest sources of computer lock-in ever. In fact, it was a device driver (a printer driver, to be specific) that motivated RMS to start the Free Software movement. Until the last couple of years, device drivers were the most oft-quoted reason why switching to an F/LOSS operating system wasn't feasible, and they're still very high on the list.

        Device drivers matter. A lot. Maybe only programmers deal with them directly, but end-users certainly feel the pain when they're not available or don't work.

        That said, as I mentioned in another post, this conflict isn't about device driver availability or even device driver source, it's about device documentation. Theo wants it, Marvell won't give it, Getty and company have found a way to work around the issue by getting it under NDA so they can write open source firmware and drivers.

      • Device drivers and programming interfaces matter a DAMN lot! Look at the development between OpenGL and DirectX for a very simple reference. That's maybe not "visible" to the user, but to the programmer, and without a programmer, no program. And when the programmer only knows a CSS interface, the lock-in is already on the roll.

        The goal isn't to promote OSS. Well, it is, but not for the sake of its own. The reason to promote OSS is simply that the people there are not going to be dependent on the goodwill of
    • I understand where you are going with your argument. Its akin to third world nations starting with cell towers for telephony instead of laying copper.

      IMO its a bit different with computers. OSS just isn't up to par yet with Windows and Mac OS X from a regular user standpoint. There's also a bit of pride and prestiege. Just because these people are the poorest people on Earth does not mean they want to use what to them are "second class operating systems" that can't run the software that their friends and fa
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Won't somebody please think of the children?
  • If the idea is to make the devices as useful as possible to local populations in diverse places, then the component drivers need to be as available as the software. There's no way to anticipate every situation and every mod a particular community might want to make. And it's worth the effort even if that means it takes another two years to get the device to market.
    • There's no way to anticipate ... every mod a particular community might want to make.

      I think we can safely say that led fans, clear cases, and useless aluminum wings are not in the cards for these machines...
  • On one hand, I think Theo and crew are right on. I've used OpenBSD for many years now and have seen the results of the no-compromise-and-take-no-prisoner approach in execution. The result is good.

    Lack of compromise can be messy. But in the wide world o' technology compromise can often equal crap...particularly with regard to corporate interest, marketing, and profit motive.

    On the other hand, the things discussed here are a)documentation and b)distribution rights.

    These are both things very easily
  • So this thing has both an ARM and a souped-up 486 (aka Cyrix 5x86 aka National Semiconductor Geode aka AMD Geode)?

    • Why is it using an x86 at all?
    • Why not just go ARM all the way? ARM is more popular than x86 (by CPUs shipped), and in switching to ARM the wireless hardware could be simplified.
    • If a high-speed ARM consumes too much power, have two CPUs, one that is active only in low-power mode.

    Why not just ditch x86 and go ARM exclusively? Is x86 binary compatibility that important?

    You could even labe

  • by 10Ghz (453478) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @09:59AM (#16377271)
    Gettys says quite clearly that:

    "A GPL Linux device driver for the Marvell wireless chip, the Libertas driver, still under development but also fully functional can be found in our GIT tree.

    We are having open firmware for the Marvell wireless chip developed by Meraki. I don't know yet what license that code will be released under, though would expect it would likely be one or more of the MIT, LGPL or GPL licenses; but we'll have to think through the usage cases and needs of the communities involved before we can make that choice."

    So yes, open and free drivers and firmwares are being developed as we speak. So is this an issue not about what OLPC will use in the future, but about what they are temporarily using at this very moment?
  • Theo's response was a very short incisive critique that exposes the guts of the hardware argument. On one side, manufacturers and their shills all want disposable hardware. Is it OK if every child has a laptop but the parts from their old one are leaching lead into their water supply and they are too dumb to use them? Driver maintenance helps keep hardware out of landfills. If the service life of a piece of hardware is extended, the cost of recycling its toxic parts becomes affordable. Software (long term d

  • by NDPTAL85 (260093) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @10:24AM (#16377565)
    Do you really think that the point behind getting a laptop in every child's hands is to get them to start programming source code? I personally don't think it is. Its to just get them a computer in the first place. Computers existed in the United States before Windows you know but their usage didn't explode until Microsoft created an operating system that was easy enough to use for just about anyone to pick up. The bulk of the population of the United States didn't become programmers. Not even half became programmers. Nor a quarter or a 20th. I predict the very same course of events for India. The OLPC is just something to USE not program on. Thus it being open source or not is irrelevant.

    By the way, hasn't the Slashdot population learned yet that the overwhelming majority of humans in any nation are never ever ever going to be programmers?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      So the OLPC pitch is: "Stimulate your local economy by investing in educational technology that is complete dependent on a small group of programmers in a foreign country." If 1% of users become programmers that is 10,000 (for OLPC's minimum shipment of 1M boxes). Is the v2 software is going to be better written by OLPC's staff or 10,000 programmers who use the software everyday? The OLPC are trying to give countries a fast track onto the information revolution that is driving our economy. Their goal is t
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by NDPTAL85 (260093)
        No one _cares_. They just want computers. They can learn to be producers later, AFTER their infrastructure is set up. The only people who care about software being open source are people who basically want to recieve software that is hard to produce for free. Thats basically whats behind the entire open source movement. The "many eyeballs" thing fell flat on its face for code quality and sabotage protection. That only leaves just getting the stuff for free. Lots of people want stuff for free but deep down m
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by bit01 (644603)

      Computers existed in the United States before Windows you know but their usage didn't explode until Microsoft created an operating system that was easy enough to use for just about anyone to pick up.

      Historical revisionism. Computer use was exploding with the Apple II, CP/M and assorted other home computers. M$ was just one of many players. M$ was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and rode the wave when IBM decided to join in.

      Thus it being open source or not is irrelevant.

      It's

  • by hkBst (979461)
    I understand that Marvell apparently cannot free their firmware, since it's not really theirs, but I don't see why they cannot provide the hardware specifications.

    Anyway I'm sure there are hardware vendors who can deliver the needed hardware and do it without holding back information, for such a big order as OLPC will make. Missed chances and such...
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Blakey Rat (99501)
      Because some jackass open source programmer will write a driver which will make the card broadcast on an illegal radio spectrum. And when the investigators come to take a look at it, they'll just look at the brand name of the card. And the company will have to tell them that the reason that card is breaking the rules is because they opened up their documentation without any sort of code signing or approval program. And meanwhile, that wireless card could be interfering with police radios while they're tr

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