Writing an end to the bio of BIOS

Intel and Microsoft are set to start pitching "EFI" as an improved way of starting up a PC's hardware before its operating system begins loading--a task that's been handled by the BIOS for a quarter century.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
6 min read
Intel and Microsoft are gearing up to move toward the first major overhaul of the innermost workings of the personal computer--the boundary where software and hardware meet--during 2004.

The companies will begin promoting a technology specification called EFI (Extensible Firmware Interface) as a new system for starting up a PC's hardware before its operating system begins loading, a process that kicks in every time a PC is switched on or restarted.


What's new:
Intel and Microsoft say it's time to ditch the outmoded BIOS, or basic input/output system, which for 23 years has served to start a PC's hardware before the operating system takes over. The companies say the Extensible Firmware Interface, or EFI, makes it simpler to add improvements to PCs and speeds up the booting process.

Bottom line:
Although many agree that the BIOS is out of date, a new technology isn't likely to be adopted until it's declared an industry standard. Intel and Microsoft will push for that, but with PC makers historically resistant to change, EFI is, if anything, likely to exist alongside BIOS for some time.

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The pair will establish a forum to promote the specification as a standard. If EFI-based software is accepted broadly, it could prompt the first changing of the guard in preboot software in the history of the PC industry--even though some critics say the transition may take a while or may not happen at all.

Right now, the task of getting a PC's hardware ready to accept the operating system is handled by software called BIOS, or basic input/output system. While the BIOS was once relatively straightforward in its design, over the years it has morphed into a figurative bowl of spaghetti as it's been changed and updated to accept new technologies.

Advocates say EFI would make it simpler for companies to add improvements, while also enabling PCs to boot up faster.

"We've been through four OS generations and multiple bus generations (a system bus helps move data around inside a PC), but we're still on the first version of BIOS," said Mike Richmond, manager of platform software in Intel's Software and Solutions Group. "It's become, increasingly, a barrier to innovation in the industry."

The first EFI computer, a Gateway PC, went on sale in November. Others are expected to appear in 2004, with ever greater numbers coming in the following years. But not everyone is jumping on the EFI bandwagon. PC makers have been historically reluctant to change as their customers, especially businesses, often prefer stability. Hence the resilience of the floppy drive, despite many efforts to kill it off.

One of the largest BIOS software companies, Phoenix Technologies, says it's in no hurry to adopt EFI. The company, whose BIOS software is used by most of the world's largest PC makers, says it won't consider EFI until it becomes a standard. Meanwhile, Phoenix has developed its own potential BIOS replacement, dubbed Core Management Environment, for notebooks. It plans to add similar software for servers and desktops in 2004, company executives said.

EFI does have one thing going for it. Many industry players agree that something needs to be done, and soon, if PC makers want to continue to easily make transitions to new technologies.

"Realistically we're using a BIOS that consists of patches upon patches and extensions that go back to 1982. Something needed to be done to clean things up and to add functionality," said Dean McCarron, analyst with Mercury Research.

EFI for dummies
The EFI specification is essentially a preboot environment that allows a PC to conduct activities such as scanning for viruses or running diagnostics. Intel has used EFI to create a preboot software framework that can supplant the BIOS. The framework, called Platform Innovation Framework for EFI and sometimes referred to by the code name Tiano, allows PC makers to write preboot software modules, which are similar to Windows drivers, designed to get a PC's hardware up and running before handing off control of it to the operating system.

Intel and Microsoft will promote EFI as an industry standard by establishing a forum to assist others in adopting the specification. The forum will be officially announced within the next 90 days, Richmond said.

Intel believes promoting the specification as a standard will ultimately help PC manufacturers and please PC users by making computers start up more quickly; by improving the ability to manage PCs and servers remotely; and by helping hardware makers cut manufacturing and support costs--EFI PCs will be able to run diagnostic utilities, for example, before loading their operating system.

"We've been through four (operating system) generations and multiple bus generations, but we're still on the first version of BIOS. It's become a barrier to innovation."
--Mike Richmond
Intel's Software and Solutions Group
"We think, in the long run, we can bring boot time down, because (the EFI framework) only has to touch the things it needs to boot. It also helps the overall reliability of the computer," Richmond said. "In the PC world, we put up with that stuff, and we shouldn't."

Intel and Microsoft will also promote EFI by supporting it with their products. Microsoft will support EFI in Longhorn, its next version of the Windows operating system. Intel will support the technology in future chipsets--chips that move data inside a PC. The chipmaker has also been licensing its EFI framework to third parties, including BIOS software companies.

Despite the efforts of Intel and Microsoft, there's no doubt that EFI, BIOS and potential competitors, such as Phoenix's Core software, will coexist at first.

Starting up
The speed of any transition should have a lot to do with how quickly EFI is adopted as a standard. Over time, Intel believes, EFI will be broadly adopted because of its potential benefits and also because of a shortage of skilled BIOS software engineers, Richmond said.

One Intel EFI licensee, Insyde Software, has already created an EFI-based product, called Insyde H20, that PC makers can use to write preboot software, said Jonathan Joseph, the company's president. H20 simplifies writing the software for customers who are short on BIOS engineers.

"It's a dramatically better development environment than assembly language BIOS code," Joseph said. "It's a better way to make BIOS than BIOS."

Gateway, which uses EFI in its all-in-one Gateway 610 Media Center desktop, said it chose to do so because EFI proved a more efficient way to code preboot software and can also help to improve the product from a long-term development perspective, a company representative said.

Still, some companies might see EFI as a way for Intel and Microsoft to push their own ideas for the future of PC design, McCarron said. There are "some concerns that it's being used to enable features that customers don't want," he said.

Intel says such suspicions are unfounded--companies that decide to go with EFI will be able to use it any way they like, by picking and choosing different features. EFI users don't necessarily have to work directly with Intel, either. They can gain access to the technology by working with companies like Insyde, or eventually use technology developed by the forum, once it gets started.

Even Phoenix indicates a willingness to evaluate EFI, once the technology becomes an industry standard.

"Everybody is looking to this...But only when it becomes an industry standard will the (PC) industry adopt it," said Tim Eades, senior vice president and general manager of corporate marketing and products at Phoenix. "When it becomes a standard, we will investigate it."

Despite its potential benefits, no one--including Intel--expects EFI to appear in PCs overnight. Technology transitions such as the move to USB (Universal Serial Bus) generally take several years for the PC industry to complete.

Although EFI may take several years to hit its stride, Intel chipsets will offer the EFI framework as an alternative to a BIOS in 2005, Richmond said. The company's chipsets will support BIOS software for many years to come. However, as time passes, some chipset features may be accessible only via EFI. That's the price of progress, Richmond said.

"After 23 years, it was time to start from scratch," said Richmond. "There's a certain life span for every technology. You can expand it and grow it, but at some point you have to start over."