You may be rolling an obscure flavor of Linux on your new laptop and sporting a Free Software Foundation bumper sticker on your bio-diesel powered V-Dub, but chances are your open-source laptop isn't really that "free," thanks to closed firmware binaries hidden deep inside hardware itself.
That’s something Purism says it has finally cracked with its Librem 15, a laptop that embraces free and open-source software and is currently conducting a crowdfunding campaign. The Librem may be the only laptop sold with a modern Intel CPU that doesn't rely on proprietary firmware to boot up.
The issue for Purism and those who want access to all software on a PC is that when you boot up a new laptop that’s had Windows blown away for Linux, the laptop must still use proprietary, digitally-signed firmware to start up. Those are black-box binaries you’ll never see the inside of. And the really bad news: That Intel chip has been permanently fused so it can only look for digitally-signed firmware when started, for security reasons.
Purism said that in looking to build its open-source, crowdfunded Librem 15 laptops, it discovered that the fusing of the CPUs can be set by the motherboard manufacturer to either look for digitally-signed firmware, or not to. And no, it’s not some dark conspiracy to fuse Intel-based laptops to always look for proprietary firmware—it’s just that no one ever asks for anything else. And, well, you’d have to be building laptops to ask for such a configuration.
And no, AMD wasn't an option, Purism CEO Todd Weaver said in an interview with PCWorld. Although at one time AMD did support releasing source code on firmware, the company made a decision this summer to move to binaries only, which pushed Purism over to Intel, who may be more willing to release source code.
Weaver said having an Intel CPU in a laptop not locked into proprietary firmware will be a first since probably the original Core CPU, but there's still many steps to take to remove all of the proprietary software in a laptop. And even with the Intel CPU fused to be open the community will have to to write its own open firmware to replace Intel's, but he expects that to be just a few months away. And if you're really going to nitpick, he said, there's also the firmware in the SSD that's closed.
But the ability to get the Librem 15 laptops with these more "open" CPUs is being lauded by at least one major open source proponent.
“Getting rid of the signature checking is an important step. While it doesn't give us free code for the firmware, it means that users will really have control of the firmware once we get free code for it,” said Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation in a statement supporting the Librem 15.
Changes in design, but not in ideology
Purism has already made changes to its original crowdfunded design from just a month ago by jettisoning the Nvidia discrete graphics for Intel's Iris Pro graphics. This decision was made because QubesOS developers wanted a particular CPU with VT-d and VT-x virtualization, which wouldn't work with discrete graphics in a hybrid mode. Weaver also said using an Nvdia graphics chip would require another closed binary which would also be a step backward for the freedom-obsessed laptop.
The Librem 15 now also offers an option to buy a 4K resolution panel as an upgrade.
Many have dinged the LIbrem 15 for being overly expensive compared to an off the shelf laptop but Weaver defended the pricing. He said the project doesn't have the scale of a Dell or Lenovo to get prices lower and its a minor miracle they could negotiate manufacturing for such a small number of laptops with factories that are used to cranking out orders magnitudes larger. That in turn has driven prices up but it has given them the ability to ask the motherboard manufacturer to also set the CPUs to run unsigned binaries.
The Librem 15 was originally intended to have its crowdfunded round close in December, but Weaver said extended it to the end of January, which was the original timeline. He said he doesn't believe funding for the Librem 15 should be an issue as most crowdfunding backers climb aboard at the end.
Why this matters
For regular citizens happily rolling a Microsoft or Apple OS that they have faith in, it doesn't matter one bit. But for those who truly want to be able to see as much code as possible on their computer it's a big step forward. Even if the Librem 15 doesn't get full funding, the discovery that proprietary firmware isn't necessarily mandatory on a laptop should open the way for future open laptop designs.