Stallman: Closed BIOS Code 'Unethical'

Free Software Foundation (FSF) President Richard Stallman has given the call to arms for a free, open BIOS. Stallman considers modern PC design -- where the BIOS is stored in nonvolatile writable memory instead of a ROM chip -- to be a "non-free" program when vendors provide BIOS upgrades.

The FSF is proposing that users get involved in the campaign by purchasing motherboards that support a free BIOS, buying AMD CPUs rather than Intel, and writing letters to hardware vendors.

According to Stallman, in the past, the BIOS might as well have been hardware because of the simple inability to copy and modify ROMs. However, Stallman has a different take on today's BIOS.

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"Since that time, the situation has changed. Today the BIOS is no longer burned in ROM; it is stored in nonvolatile writable memory that users can rewrite. Today the BIOS sits square on the edge of the line. It comes prewritten in our computers, and normally we never install another. So far, that is just barely enough to excuse treating it as hardware," said Stallman.

He continued, "But once in a while the manufacturer suggests installing another BIOS, which is available only as an executable. This, clearly, is installing a non-free program - it is just as bad as installing Microsoft Windows, or Adobe Photoshop, or Sun's Java Platform. As the unethical practice of installing another BIOS executable becomes common, the version delivered inside the computer starts to raise an ethical problem issue as well."

In an open letter published online, Stallman berated vendors for keeping the commands necessary to update BIOS a secret, and lamented that few desktop machines can run a free BIOS nor is the FSF aware of any laptop with such capability.

Stallman singled out Intel with an acid pen, calling it the most uncooperative company, which has a "sham" open source BIOS project. Stallman claims that the contributions made by Intel are unimportant parts of the BIOS and, "just a distraction" that will not run.

AMD, meanwhile, is in the FSF's good graces for cooperating "pretty well," and the FSF encourages consumers to buy AMD products.

Some open BIOS projects include the aptly named OpenBIOS Project and LinuxBIOS, a modified version of the Linux Kernel.

"You can also help our campaign by writing to manufacturers such as Intel, saying they ought to cooperate with a fully free BIOS. Calm but strong disapproval, coupled with stating an intention to take action accordingly, is more effective than venting rage," said Stallman. "Please send a copy of your message to [email protected], so we can monitor the support for this campaign. The more mail they get, the more effect, so please do add your voice to ours."

An Intel spokesperson could not be reached before press time to respond to Stallman's statements.

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