Will Linux Be Locked Out of Windows 8 PCs?

No sooner had bloggers decided that Microsoft’s widely trumpeted Windows 8 wouldn’t pose any serious threat to Linux than a whole new wrinkle emerged.

“Wrinkle” is actually a bit of a euphemism, in this case; in fact, it was the prospect of a computing landscape that could change life as Linux users know it. Namely? Word that the new Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) secure boot protocol used by Windows 8 could make Windows 8 PCs uninhabitable by Linux.

“It’s probably not worth panicking yet,” wrote Red Hat developer Matthew Garrett last week. “But it is worth being concerned.”

‘It’s Misleading’

Indeed, “concerned” is a fair description of the general reaction throughout the Linux blogosphere, with perhaps a small touch of “panic” thrown in. The topic made headlines on PCWorld, on OStatic, on ZDNet and beyond, and the flames of controversy only flared higher when Microsoft’s own Steven Sinofsky chimed in, prompting not just one but two further posts from Red Hat’s Garrett on Friday.

“Microsoft’s rebuttal is entirely factually accurate. But it’s also misleading,” Garrett charged. “The truth is that Microsoft’s move removes control from the end user and places it in the hands of Microsoft and the hardware vendors. The truth is that it makes it more difficult to run anything other than Windows.

“The truth is that UEFI secure boot is a valuable and worthwhile feature that Microsoft are misusing to gain tighter control over the market,” he added. “And the truth is that Microsoft haven’t even attempted to argue otherwise.”

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a debate with stakes this high. Linux Girl knew it was time to learn more.

‘I Hope It Doesn’t Fly’

“I have no doubt that M$ is extremely interested in locking-out competition in the guise of improving the security of their Swiss-cheese operating system,” blogger Robert Pogson told Linux Girl.

“While it might be possible for distros to have a signing system that would be compatible with M$’s scheme, even I build kernels and compile source code sometimes,” Pogson went on. “There’s no way the hundreds of thousands of developers who work on Linux will afford such a scheme. Most do not even buy signed certificates for servers. How are we Flossies going to afford one for every piece of software to be installed on a PC?”

Microsoft “will not tolerate its software being unable to run on the huge installed base of non-compliant hardware,” Pogson added. “This scheme will have to be phased in over years and will add complexity and cost. I hope it doesn’t fly.”

‘We Need to Keep a Close Watch on Them’

Similarly, “Microsoft’s favorite vendors almost certainly will make it difficult to impossible to install Linux,” predicted Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza. “On the other hand, Linux-friendly vendors like Asus will almost certainly make it easy.

“It is, after all, up to the vendor, and not up to Microsoft, although only a fool would believe they won’t try to stifle Linux with the combination of this feature and their influence over OEMs,” Espinoza concluded.

Indeed, “it’s hard to say how this will play out, but given that Microsoft is pulling the strings, we know from both their reputation and from their actions lately that we need to keep a close watch on them to make sure they don’t pull anything dirty,” agreed consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack.

‘I Do Not Expect Manufacturers to Care’

“Much ado about nothing” was how Roberto Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor, summed it up.

“It sounds like there is a justifiable reason to use UEFI,” Lim explained. “I really do not see this issue as being different from Android phones with locked boot loaders. Most manufacturers would expect that you would use devices with the operating system that they were sold with.”

Linux’s relatively small market share is at least one factor at work here, Lim suggested.

“I do not expect many PC manufacturers to care about the last 2 percent,” he explained. “What can I say? It always is problematic to be part of a minority, and being part of a highly fragmented minority only makes it worse.”

It may just be time for the Linux community to “get together, give up some freedom, in exchange for making it easier for hardware manufacturers to provide support,” Lim asserted. “Never mind UEFI for now. Better driver support would be a good start. I can imagine this would please app developers too.”

‘A Giant, Vista-Sized Bomb’

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet was also unconcerned, but for different reasons.

Windows 8 “is gonna be a giant, Vista-sized bomb anyway; let them lock it — that’ll just make it bomb FASTER than before!” hairyfeet asserted.

“I have shown screencaps of the Win 8 ‘desktop,’ aka Metro UI, to over a hundred customers — there are everything from carpenters and home makers to professional artists and businessmen — and you know what? NOT A SINGLE ONE liked the metro UI, not one!” hairyfeet told Linux Girl. “The closest I got to a positive was this: ‘Hey that’s a nice cell phone picture. Is it Android?'”

‘WinME All Over Again’

The software “is gonna make Vista look like a runaway smash,” hairyfeet added. “It’s WinME all over again, all because Ballmer wants to be Jobs so bad it hurts.”

The only positive consequence hairyfeet could see from “the possibility of them locking it down is whitebox guys like me will have a HUGE upsurge in business as we are hired to kill that thing or change the board, followed by kill that thing, just as I spent a good year and a half wiping Vista for XP,” he said.

Meanwhile, “MSFT will get busted for antitrust if it turns out they did it and so will have to play nice for another dozen years, and finally — FINALLY — Ballmer will have to ‘pursue other interests’ and they can bring in a decent CEO,” hairyfeet predicted.

‘Manufacturers Will Let End Users Disable This’

Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site, took a measured view.

“At first, I was NOT happy to hear about this,” Hudson told Linux Girl. “Then I got to thinking … manufacturers will mostly let the end user enable or disable this at boot time, if only to avoid returns because their computer doesn’t support an expensive legacy graphics or frame grabber card.

“Those avoidable returns are like ebola — you’ll bleed out, and retailers will avoid you like you had … well, like you had ebola,” she added.

‘Linux Will Offer Signed Distros’

Manufacturers have also had time by now to “digest the lessons from HP’s TouchPad,” Hudson added. “HP was able to get rid of its surplus stock in just a few weeks in large part because people can try to install whatever they want on it, including Android. HP recovered about (US)$20 million, over and above the potential costs of taking back the inventory and disposing of TouchPads as eWaste.”

So, “fewer rooted Windows PCs are a good thing for everyone except the Nigerian Prince who wants to send me money, and Sony-style DRM,” Hudson opined.

“There will also be a mechanism (either official or from the hacker community) to add new signing keys and revoke leaked ones, the same as with Blu-ray players,” Hudson predicted. “So eventually Linux, BSD and other operating systems will offer signed distros to those who want them, and users will be able to generate their own self-signed keys.”

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter.


  • I still see a big problem there.

    MS says you can disable safe boot on your computer, and boot other OS (including win7, XP …).

    But they don’t say that in this mode, Win8 will still boot. basic "Security" principles say an OS that expects a safe boot should not boot in unsafe mode.

    Probably you will need a complete reinstall, to change the accepted boot mode of W8, which is impossible from an OEM PC, due to only a restore image saved in a spare backup.

    So each time you want to reboot, wou yill probably need to change some obscure BIOS setting.

    In this case, bye bye dual boot.

  • Not worried at all. Sony locked their contribution to the gaming world, so that Linux couldn’t be installed anymore. Hackers kept on installing Linux, all the same. Things have come to head, recently, with Sony shutting down the one major contributor to the Sony hacking community – but people are STILL installing Linux on PS3’s.

    If Microsoft goes that route, then we can look forward to yet more media and courtroom circus, but Linux will still run on vendor’s hardware. Ultimately, it can only make Microsoft look stupid for having made the attempt.

Leave a Comment

Please sign in to post or reply to a comment. New users create a free account.

LinuxInsider Channels