On VIA's failure to provide adequate Linux support

VIA is definitely one of the most innovative producers of PC-hardware. Their EPIA-series mini-ITX and nano-ITX mainboards are ideal for small appliances, such as firewalls, VPN-gateways, and especially home entertainment platforms such as PVR/DVR applications, DVB-Receivers, DVD/VCD/AVI-players, VideoLan receivers and such.

Just two days ago, VIA made a press release on their new VeXP 3.0 release, a VIA-enhanced fork of xine. To the unfamiliar reader, this press release raises the impression that VIA is really involved with Linux and the Free Software community.

This is just terribly wrong. They do anything but to support GNU/Linux. Comparing this press release with reality, I think VIA's Linux involvement as a whole is nothing more than a PR strategy.

I've recently investigated the "Linux support" they make available for their EPIA platforms. Even from the first glance it was obvious, that VIA just doesn't have any idea on on what it takes to "Support Linux".

All they do is to publish proprietary, pre-compiled kernel frame buffer and XFree86 display drivers for a limited number of particularly old GNU/Linux distributions.

Oh yes, I almost forgot it: They also publish the source to some 'lite' driver which lacks all the functionality needed for hardware-assisted MPEG2 decoding. This is obviously useless, since the whole point of buying a small fan-less board with hardware MPEG acceleration and TV-Out is to use the acceleration.

So their "Linux Support" is so good, that a number of people have to spend days and days in reverse engineering their binary proprietary drivers. You can find more information about the reverse engineering effort. My special thanks are going to Ivor Hewitt for doing all this work.

But wait, wasn't that what the Linux folks usually did with Windows drivers? Welcome to the world of "VIA Linux support", where instead of reverse engineering Windows drivers, we now have to do it with Linux drivers.

If VIA was really interested in providing good GNU/Linux support for their EPIA products, they would

  1. write full source code drivers licensed under appropriate Free Software licenses.
  2. make those drivers use standard interfaces, the respective project's coding style, contain useful comments.
  3. publish those drivers as patches against the latest development version of the respective project (kernel, XFree86, Xine)
  4. Work with the respective project maintainers to integrate those patches
  5. not have to care about maintaining RPMs for each and every distribution
  6. not have to care about porting their drivers to ever-changing API's, since they are included in the respective Free Software projects
  7. Provide documentation for their hardware down to the register level, so the Free Software community can continue development extending to features maybe not yet covered by the current driver.

Related Links:

  • http://lwn.net/Articles/99464/ VIA's original press release
  • http://www.viavpsd.com/ VIA's EPIA homepage
  • http://www.viaarena.com/ VIA's support forum and driver downloads
  • http://www.epiawiki.org/ The comprehensive source of EPIA/Linux related information
  • http://www.ivor.it/cle266/ The reverse engineered driver page