Foundation wants more of the PC to be free

The Free Software Foundation is mounting a wider effort to encourage the creation of free BIOS software for PCs.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
2 min read
The Free Software Foundation is calling on developers of open-source software to put their efforts into creating a free version of a crucial but obscure piece of software used in personal computers.

The Boston-based FSF wants to foster the broader development of free BIOS software for standard PCs. The BIOS, or basic input-output system, is a little-known application that acts as a go-between for a PC's hardware and operating system. It enables many advanced hardware features--power management for extending notebooks' battery life, for example.

Right now most BIOS software on PCs or computer motherboards is developed by a PC manufacturer or a BIOS specialist such as Phoenix. That manufacturer typically decides when and how the BIOS software is updated, if it's updated at all. The Free Software Foundation's effort to foster a free BIOS--meaning a BIOS that costs nothing and could be installed and used freely--would put control of BIOS more in the hands of end users, foundation President Richard Stallman said in a speech last week in Brussels, Belgium.

Even though free BIOSes such as LinuxBIOS exist, Stallman called for more development for what he called PC clones--standard desktop and laptop PCs.

"How to install a new BIOS is...secret on many machines. And so far, most manufacturers have not given us the necessary cooperation of providing these specifications," he said. "Some desktop machines can run a free BIOS, but we don't know of any laptop that can do so."

The effort could also help solve a long-running Linux bugaboo. Because BIOS software is closely held, software writers don't have access to its source code, often making it difficult to get sophisticated computer features such as power management to work with Linux.

So far, free or open-source BIOS projects have received some support from the Linux community and also big names such as Intel.

The LinuxBIOS, a BIOS replacement based on the Linux operating system kernel, has been in development since 1999 and can be used with a number of motherboards for AMD processors.

Intel also has been working to update the technology that underlies most BIOSes, which it has promised to release as open-source software. Stallman, however, described that effort as incomplete.

Intel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

To help foster more free BIOS software, the foundation is asking for people to pitch in on development issues, such as determining how to install new BIOS software on PCs. It is also encouraging people to buy motherboards that use free BIOS software, including the LinuxBIOS, and to patronize companies such as AMD, which it says supports free BIOS. In addition, it is asking people to write letters to others, like Intel, in an effort to convince them to support free BIOS software.