Broadcom Sees the Linuxy Light at Last

Good things come to those who wait, as the saying goes, and recently the Linux community had occasion to observe a vivid illustration close to home.

Specifically, after years of ill repute as one of the primary wireless chipmakers that didn’t support Linux, Broadcom on Monday showed the community some love. Following its release of a key compatible driver last fall, the company has now gone whole-hog and joined the Linux Foundation.

Cause for celebration, if ever there was one!

‘Our Growing Base of Customers’

But wait — there’s more!

“There is no question: Linux has become a major platform for communications devices and technologies,” said Michael Hurlston, senior vice president and general manager for Broadcom’s WLAN line of business. “Our decision to open source the drivers for Broadcom’s 802.11 chipsets is in response to our growing base of customers using Linux and is the first of what we expect to be many open development success stories.”

Yes, that’s a “growing base of customers using Linux” that Hurlston referred to. That statement won’t surprise anyone on the FOSS side of the fence, but to see it proclaimed to the world at large by none other than Broadcom has caused a swelling of joy in many Linuxy hearts.

‘The Right Thing’

“Cool news,” wrote blogger Manja on PCWorld, for example. “Great to see some companies, that were such a trouble in the past, doing the right thing and improve.

“Can’t wait until the day we can just install any Linux distro and even Broadcom WiFi works out of the box and with completely Free and open drivers,” Manja added.

So jubilant was Linux Girl, in fact, that she headed straight down to the blogosphere’s Punchy Penguin saloon for some camaraderie and liquid celebration.

She wasn’t alone.

‘That Just Leaves Nvidia’

“I am very happy with Broadcom’s decision to support Linux properly since now I have to do less part-swapping when I buy a new laptop,” Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack enthused. “That just leaves Nvidia as the only major holdout, and we can only guess how long it will take them to get a clue.”

Indeed, “I’ve encountered several devices with Broadcom chipsets, all of which I have needed to install the proprietary driver on,” Australian blogger Jeremy Visser told Linux Girl. “For example, my Linksys WRT54G is stuck on the 2.4 kernel because the proprietary driver for the Broadcom hardware in the device doesn’t support the 2.6 kernel — and never will, as it has been abandoned.”

Visser volunteers at an annual Linux install-fest at a local university, he added.

“Close to half of the laptops we get there have Broadcom chipsets, and require the installation of the proprietary driver,” he pointed out. “Close to half of those chipsets are still flaky, or don’t work at all. An open driver supporting those laptops would be welcomed with open arms by the likes of me.”

‘Greatly Appreciated’

Broadcom’s new commitment “is great news,” blogger Robert Pogson agreed. “Every hardware maker who commits to supporting Linux and drivers is greatly appreciated.”

The remaining issue in GNU/Linux support for hardware is “the ‘binary blob’ — stuff that has to be loaded into a chip to make it work,” Pogson added. “There are still too many of those. Where I last worked, almost all ethernet was e100, which has a binary blob, so I had to use Debian’s non-free branch just to keep upgrades working. No fun at all.”

It’s a tricky problem “because many of these chips are one-off designs, so there is little infrastructure in the world to make examining the code or modifying it relevant to Free Software on a PC,” he explained. “Manufacturers do not want competitors to be able to clone their chips, which would be trivial with publication of the internal workings and source code. Trade secrets and patents are also involved.”

‘A Grave Error’

Patents, in fact, “unfortunately are still permitted to be too vague to actually build a chip,” Pogson pointed out. “That is a grave error on the part of patent-issuing bodies. It defeats the redeeming feature of patents: disclosure.

“Since almost all such hardware uses software, this situation may be improved when software patents are finally killed for the zombies that they are,” Pogson concluded.

Slashdot blogger Eldavojohn wasn’t so sure the move is all that significant.

“Honestly, they joined at the Silver Level, where there are 60 some other members,” Eldavojohn told Linux Girl. “It’s great to see someone who has learned to maintain and release Linux drivers join the foundation, but how is this any more significant than Cisco joining at the Gold Level?”

‘I Don’t See What Makes Broadcom Special’

The levels, of course, “refer to how much money you pay to the foundation each year,” Eldavojohn pointed out. “I would prefer a breakdown of KLOC released under open source-approved licenses so you could see that someone like Google at the Gold Level is really a more important member than, say, NEC at the Platinum Level.”

Personally, Eldavojohn is more excited when an international company joins the foundation, such as China Mobile.

“It’s always great to have new members, but I don’t see what makes Broadcom special unless this move signifies a true move supporting open source for the company’s coming products,” he concluded.

‘A Gamble to Help Them Stay Alive’

Slashdot blogger and Windows enthusiast hairyfeet was skeptical for other reasons.

“While it is nice, I think it is about as useful now as calling an ambulance after the corpse begins to smell,” hairyfeet asserted. “If they would have done this when Vista was first released it would have been a BIG help.

“Now? Win 7 is a hit, everyone loves it, and Windows is gonna be on ARM as well,” he explained. “Nobody really cares about netbooks and notebooks now, and like the desktop they belong to Windows.”

What remains are “mobile devices like phones and tablets, which Broadcom has never been a really big player in, and considering how craptastic their chips are, both from a performance and power perspective, I doubt they ever will,” hairyfeet predicted.

So, while the news may be “great for someone dumpster diving or trying to deal with an older laptop, that is yesterday’s news,” he added. “The new hotness will be both ARM and X64 system on a chip, or SOC.”

Separate wireless chips, in fact, “will go the way of add-on sound cards,” hairyfeet asserted. “That is why I think Broadcom is now ‘showing the love,’ as it is nothing but a gamble to help them stay alive in a market that will quickly pass them by. We saw Sun try the same trick towards the end of their life, but it didn’t help there either.”

‘What Took You So Long?’

For Slashdot blogger Barbara Hudson, who goes by “Tom” on the site, it’s all about tablets.

“The second question that came to mind was, ‘Why?'” Hudson told Linux Girl. “The first was probably the same as everyone else: ‘What took you so long?'”

The move “can’t be because of laptops — laptops with Broadcom chips have been around for ages, and linux support has always been iffy,” Hudson pointed out. “Broadcom execs went to the top of the mountain and had a revelation: a voice said, ‘Take two tablets and call me in the morning!'”

‘Linux Is Where the Market Is Heading’

Since most tablets will be running Linux, in other words, “Broadcom had two choices: open up in a credible way, or lose that market by default,” she explained.

“To me, it shows that even longtime Redmond loyalists see that linux is where the market is heading over the next decade, as mobile devices continue to increase their lead over desktops,” Hudson concluded.

“Ignoring linux is simply no longer a viable option,” she added. “Better to ignore Windows Phone 7 — after all, everyone else is. :-)”


  • I think Broadcom saw dollar signs and not the light. But it took Google to help Linux rise from more then just a OS for geeks.

    I think Android is actually a hybrid sort of Linux. The fact that Broadcom now see’s a potential marketing stream for its products is a perfect reason to support Linux.

    • Hi Jescott! While I’m sure greed played a part I truly think this is more of a desperation move. As AMD and Intel and Nvidia have shown us with Fusion, Sandy Bridge, and Tegra respectively the future is LESS chips not more.

      I truly believe the future will be integrated wireless just as we once all had to buy sound cards but now we all have Realtek HD that is "good enough" so too will the wireless card be replaced by a tiny wireless chip that will probably be integrated, either directly into the boards or even into the southbridge.

      Broadcom is hoping to hang onto a market that is frankly gonna go the way of the Soundblaster and if I had to bet money I would say the future will belong to either Aetheros or Realtek, and my money is on Realtek. They have the experience with integrated chips and from what I understand thanks to their scale it is literally cheaper to have Realtek sound (thanks to their integrated Ethernet plus sound bundle) than it is to make something without.

      With mobile and wireless networks being both the way of the present AND the future frankly the future doesn’t look bright for Broadcom. Despite their past sales they never were able to get the chips into Realtek territory price wise and now I’m seeing more and more using chips from Realtek, Aetheros, and Intel over Broadcom. Like Sun I think this is a gamble to attempt to stave off the inevitable and I doubt it will work, although I’m happy for the Linux guys that they don’t have to mess with the binary blobs of crapitude that was Broadcom Linux drivers.

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