AMD's New Gambit: Open Source Video Driversby Ryan Smith on September 25, 2007 12:00 AM EST
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With the negatives of AMD's open source efforts out of the way, let's talk about the positives.
First and foremost, once these drivers are in a usable state, this will be a massive boon to most if not all of the Linux distributions. Virtually all of the major distributions do not include binary drivers in to their distributions due to legal and philosophical reasons. With an open source driver available for ATI's video cards these distributions will be able to include this driver out of the box, making Linux installations easier for users who previously would have needed to go about more convoluted methods of installing the binary drivers. Make no mistake, binary drivers while workable are not easy to use under Linux, and having a major open source driver like this will further the goal of many Linux distributions of making themselves easier to install and maintain.
Simultaneously, an open source driver alleviates the problems posed by the unstable driver API. Currently any changes to the driver API that break the binary drivers supplied by AMD and NVIDIA require that those drivers be fixed by the appropriate party and only the appropriate party, which can take more time than some people want to wait or may never come if it's for depreciated hardware. With an open source driver, the open source community (the same one that made the API changes that broke the driver in the first place) can quickly make the changes in the driver to work with the new API. Admittedly, the Linux driver API does not change so frequently that this is a major issue, but never the less it does occur enough that it's a nuisance.
There are also some lesser benefits in terms of security and stability. One particular set of concerns within the open source community in dealing with binary drivers is that the operating system is giving the black box full access to the system, hoping and praying that it's doing what it's supposed to do and nothing else. Bad drivers causing system crashes have long been a gripe among the Windows community, and the open source community likes it even less when an open source driver would allow them to fix the offending bug. This further extends to security concerns, as drivers can introduce weaknesses that can be exploited, something that has happened with NVIDIA's Linux drivers in 2006, and ATI's Windows Vista drivers in 2007. Open source drivers may or may not be inherently more secure depending on whose rhetoric you believe, but open source drivers can be patched a great deal sooner, reducing the risk earlier.
Finally, there is the feedback effect that this could have on hardware manufacturers. We of course are hinting towards NVIDIA, whom has faced very little of a threat from ATI due to their superior drivers. If the open source AMD video driver does end up evolving in to a driver capable of delivering Windows-like performance, AMD will have little trouble sweeping the Linux graphics market with the combination of powerful hardware and drivers that are both technically and philosophically superior. This of course would be bad for NVIDIA, who would need to consider their own full feature open source driver to keep the balance of power with AMD on Linux. This would bring all of the previously mentioned benefits to Linux users with NVIDIA cards.
With that said however, it's important not to lose sight of the present. What AMD has begun is a remarkable plan to bring in to the world open source drivers for their entire range of video cards, but it's something that we believe is a significant risk for them. We are not convinced that this is something AMD completely wants to do as a result, and remain skeptical about how far this will go. We hope that our skepticism is misplaced, but it's too soon to tell.
The only immediate unfortunate result of AMD's open source efforts here are that they will not be directly contributing code from their current drivers for the open source drivers. We understand the reasons for this, but it also means that the open source driver is starting from scratch and has a lot of ground to cover. A good video card driver will take years to develop and while we're talking about what can be, by the time this driver is finished and we can test our predictions and its effects the R600 won't even be AMD's leading GPU series.
This is the start of a long process, not the end of it, but never the less we can't wait to see how things turn out.