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09.22.11

Microsoft Finds Another Excuse to Block GNU/Linux

Posted in GNU/Linux, Microsoft, Vista 8 at 8:35 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Summary: UEFI is Microsoft’s latest excuse for leaving GNU/Linux out in the cold

MICROSOFT loves blocking or suppressing GNU/Linux installations, typically using a process it keeps describing as a feature. Microsoft has been sabotaging the MBR using the excuses that it is hard to support it (funny how one or two GRUB developers can handle it just fine). There is antitrust evidence about it going decades back and there there is the war on fast booting systems and battles against Linux using VM restrictions (fighting Linux with a Windows EULA). We have covered many such examples, even those that extend to ACPI.

Well, in a blog post that we mentioned a couple of days ago, a detailed explanation was provided about Microsoft’s next mischievous move:

Computer scientists warn that proposed changes in firmware specifications may make it impossible to run “unauthorised” operating systems such as Linux and FreeBSD on PCs.

Proposed changes to the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) firmware specifications would mean PCs would only boot from a digitally signed image derived from a keychain rooted in keys built into the PC. Microsoft is pushing to make this mandatory in a move that could not be overridden by users and would effectively exclude alternative operating systems, according to Professor Ross Anderson of Cambridge University and other observers.

“Microsoft could lock out Linux with Tivoization” was Homer’s (Slated.org) explanation. He pointed out that “The upshot is that in order to run Linux on machines with UEFI secure boot enabled, the new bootloader, kernel and all other binaries must be signed by a key that is accepted and distributed by the OEM. In practice this means Linux will only run on machines that are either preinstalled with Linux by the OEM, or on machines where UEFI secure boot is not enabled. Given Microsoft’s demands, the latter seems unlikely, and the former would essentially spell an end to Linux (or any other OS) users having any sort of autonomy WRT which distro they use, on the extremely rare occasion Microsoft’s subjugated “partners” even bothered to preinstall Linux at all. On most machines, Linux would simply be locked out entirely.

“If this does pan out the way I’m sure Microsoft would like it to, our only hope is for antitrust regulators step in and force OEMs to allow consumers to opt-out of UEFI secure boot, to enable them to install whatever they want on their own damned property.

“This is by far the biggest threat to consumers’ freedom and choice we’ve yet seen on PCs. It literally turns the keys to the entire PC industry over to Microsoft.

“I wonder how much Linus “likes Tivoization” now?”

Sam Varghese writes

Is Microsoft finally resigned to the fact that Windows can never again be the dominant operating system on our planet? Or is the behemoth planning to make one final attempt to control what you use?

Sean Michael Kerner has good coverage, whereas Sam Dean apologises somewhat or gives the benefit of the doubt to Microsoft by writing: “It’s highly doubtful this will end up being a concern when the final version of Windows 8 comes to fruition. Microsoft has become increasingly aware that IT administrators are interested in heterogenous environments where many people want to use multiple operating systems. We’ve also noted that Windows 8 is taking some of its cues from Linux. It’s not in Microsoft’s best interest to box out alternative operating systems.”

Well, gentle headlines exist as well and they come from the expected sources. Microsoft boosters try to belittle the problem, whereas Linux advocates do not. Based on antitrust material we know that Microsoft often does this knowingly and deliberately, citing internal communication.

According to other articles, this debacle “was discovered by Linux developer Matthew Garrett, who’s been doing a lot of work with EFI booting in general for his day job. Recent UEFI specifications have allowed for “secure boot” that requires an OS to have a signed key in system firmware to work.”

Mr. Corbet summarises Garrett’s article as follows:

Matthew Garrett has posted an article about the UEFI “secure boot” feature and its potential impact on Linux.

Katherine Noyes, a great GNU/Linux advocate, challenges this move by Microsoft and Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols says that “Microsoft tries to block Linux off Windows 8 PCs” (he does not give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt).

If this wasn’t so sad, it would be funny. After Microsoft recently declared victory over Linux, it turns out that Microsoft appears is still trying to arrange it so that Linux won’t even boot on the next generation of PCs that come with Windows 8. Yeah, Linux isn’t on your enemy list anymore right Microsoft? Sure.

Matthew Garrett, a Red Hat engineer, gets the credit for spotting Microsoft’s latest anti-Linux move. In a blog posting, Garrett explains that Windows 8 logo guidelines require that systems have Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) secure boot enabled. This, in turn, would block Linux, or any other operating system, from booting on it.

There’s nothing in UEFI that’s wrong. Indeed there’s a lot of good in UEFI. It’s a 21st century replacement for your PC’s basic input/output system (BIOS). Its job is to initialize your hardware and then hand over control over to the operating system.

Here is another take from a pro-Linux site:

Microsoft cheered Windows users earlier this month when it demonstrated the upcoming Windows 8 operating system booting in eight seconds. Part of the technology behind the fast boots, however, could enable Microsoft and its PC vendor partners to block users from loading Linux on a Windows 8 PC, according to a Matthew Garrett, a mobile Linux developer at Red Hat, writing in a Sept. 20 blog post.

We also covered this issue in tonight’s episode of TechBytes (to be published shortly). “Microsoft must clarify the Windows 8 boot spec and how it impacts Linux” says this last article we that we wanted to mention:

This is not a small issue. If Microsoft does attempt to make it impossible for the average consumer to install and run Linux aside of Windows 8, it will lose whatever inroads that it has made with developers in the past few years. Even more, it’s restrictive and could open the company to even more anti-trust scrutiny.

Perhaps there is no issue. It could be that Microsoft has foreseen this issue and has a workaround (at worst). But we don’t know, because Microsoft won’t tell us. They will, but the company will have suffered from its reticence to not pipe up with the truth.

The bottom line is, Microsoft is already under a lot of pressure and it’s unlikely to get away with this trick ‘by surprise’. Same ol’ Microsoft is up to no good.

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6 Comments

  1. Michael said,

    September 22, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    Gravatar

    Given the high demand for Linux on the desktop, surely OEMs would allow Linux to run.

    There is high demand… right?

    twitter Reply:

    Microsoft, not OEMs will hold the keys or Windows and Windows updates won’t run either.

    Desktops are a tiny fraction of the world’s computers.

    If you want to see a customer free dead zone, go to any computer store and look at the $400 Windows 7 laptop section. The only thing that can sell worse is Tivoized Windows 8 computers. No one is going to buy them and the bad reputation will destroy what’s left of the Windows ecosystem as long as the inflexible non computers are on the market. I imagine Microsoft will start things off with a hardware dump of epic proportions but that will only bankrupt them. People who want to live in a jail will pick one that works from Apple or Android.

    Michael Reply:

    Ah, so Windows is about to go away. Thanks for letting me know.

    twitter Reply:

    “Windows” as you knew it is already gone. There was once a relatively open and vibrant collection of companies built around the PC and Windows. It was not sustainable or just because Microsoft held all of the power and users were helpless. Microsoft exercised that power and very little is left of the ecosystem. Vista and Windows 7 were both egregious exercises of power and market failures. Windows 8 will not be a general computing platform. Microsoft is imploding.

    Michael Reply:

    Yeah, Microsoft has about six months until the file for bankruptcy. I am so happy Linux pushed them there. What would we do without Linux.

    LOL!

  2. twitter said,

    September 23, 2011 at 1:34 am

    Gravatar

    What we really see here is Microsoft’s planned take over of the desktop. They launched the effort as Palladium in 2001 or so and Richard Stallman decried it as Treacherous Computing. If you compare what RMS warned us about to jailed devices of today we can easily see the future of Windows 8 as one huge jail and an end to general purpose hardware.

    I do not think they will succeed without government mandates. “Secure” Windows 8 computers will have all the flexibility of computerized typewriters of the early 90s and few people will buy them. Cablegate shows us how Microsoft and publishers have been working to force a new “Intellectual Property Regime” (IPR) on the world but government and business need general purpose computing more than they need to protect US controlled media giants.

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