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This freedom-loving laptop discovered how to make Intel CPUs boot without closed firmware

Gordon Mah Ung | Dec. 19, 2014
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 laptop isn't really that "free," thanks to closed firmware binaries hidden deep inside hardware itself.

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 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.

The ability to get the Librem 15 laptops with these more "open" CPUs is a step being lauded by at least one 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.

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.

 

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