Firmware is a piece of code that is stored in a read-only section of a piece of hardware. It not only bootstraps the device, but also defines, activiates and makes useable the functionality of that device. Without the firmware, the device is not usable.
Since firmware carries code laying out the logic of operation of the various functions the hardware for which the firmware is written perform, the firmware is considered a technology secret, and thus, is not distributed freely (under a free license). Most big vendors of hardware do that. Not only keeping the firmware from being distributable, the vendors also tend to procrastinate releasing the proper documentation for the hardware. When that happens, people who buy those hardware are restricted from writing software to use those hardware. In other words, the customers are dependent on vendor-supplied drivers to make use of the hardware.
That is all good and great, but when there is a need to bundle in the vendor supplied driver with a Free and Open Source operating system, things start to fall apart.
Free and Open Source developers prefer to reverse engineer such hardware, and write equivalent free and open source drivers. But, without freely redistributable firmware, and lack of open and proper documentation, the end result, while usable to a remarkable extent, is still buggy and unsatisfactory (in some cases). What is required? To persuade vendors to release firmware in a freely redistributable license along with proper documentation.
Only, doing that isn’t so easy as it may sound.
Theo de Raadt, from the OpenBSD project, has released an open letter to the Free and Open Source community. In his letter, he urges the community to contact Intel to persuade them to release firmware blobs and documentation for their wireless chips.
There are many other vendors who already release firmware for their hardware in a freely redistributable form, and it is only a matter of time before Intel follows suit. A good thing about the Free and Open Source community is that they are inclined to buy hardware that is compatible with, supported by and stable on the Free and Open Source systems they use. From that perspective, and since there already are many vendors out their who have released their firmware and whose hardware are amply supported by Free and Open Source systems, when it comes to Intel’s wireless chips, the Free and Open Source community has many options. If Intel continues to persist in ousting the interests of their customers (as well as their interests, in the long run) by not releasing the firmware in a freely redistributable form, they will only stand to gain a lesser share of the market.
Interestingly, two years ago Ryan McBride wrote this letter to the Texas Instruments (TI) people to convince them to release firmware blogs and documentation for their ACX100 wireless chipsets. Suffice it to say, not only his letter but also the mails sent by the community to various people at Texas Instruments convinced TI to release the firmware in an open license.