A number of Australian Linux users have filed a formal complaint with the national competition regulator over what many perceive to be restrictive practices introduced in upcoming Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system which may stop many mass-market computers from being able to boot alternatives such as Linux.
Microsoft recently revealed it would support a PC booting protocol named the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) in Windows 8. The move was broadly seen as positive, as it will increase the security of PCs as well as doing away with the legacy limited BIOS platform which underlies operating systems like Windows and Linux on computers today.
However, Microsoft’s move immediately got sections of the open source community up in arms, as it has the potential to lock out rival operating systems from being installed on PCs from the likes of manufacturers such as Dell, HP and Lenovo — unless those manufacturers explicitly work with the Linux community to support a number of different versions of Linux.
Unlike with Windows, there are at least hundreds of popular versions of Linux in use today — compared to just a handful of Windows versions.
Australian Linux users have been discussing the issue on a mailing list belonging to the Linux Australia organisation this week, and in an email sent yesterday (first reported by ZDNet.com.au), local Linux user Russell Stuart confirmed he had taken action on the matter, writing to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
“With the release of Windows 8, Microsoft has said hardware vendors wanting to use the “Compatible with Windows 8″ logo must turn on secure booting in their BIOS’s, and must ship with Microsoft’s keys,” Stuart told the ACCC in his complaint. “As Windows commands over 85% of the desktop marketplace it seems likely all will seek to comply.”
“To cut costs and speed time to market some manufacturers will do the bare minimum Microsoft insists on, which happens to mean the PC will only run Microsoft products. Microsoft could have achieved the additional security without undermining competition in the market place by insisting on the full implementation of the UEFI secure boot specification in order to qualify for the Windows 8 logo. I believe it is in the best interests of Australian consumers the that ACCC seek to enforce this.”
According to Stuart’s email, the ACCC responded with a standardised form letter, noting that while the situation he had described may raise issues of “exclusive dealing” on Microsoft’s part, it was unclear yet from the detailed provided whether the problem would meet the test for anti-competitive behaviour.
In addition, the regulator noted, it could not take action on all complaints, with a variety of factors — such as whether there appeared to have been a breach of the Competition Act and whether the problem was “serious and widespread” — guiding how it approached each issue.
“The Act also allows an affected party to take their own legal action for a breach of the Act,” wrote the regulator. “You may wish to seek legal advice on the possibility of taking your own action in this circumstance.” Several other users on the Linux Australia mailing list received exactly the same response from the ACCC as Stuart, but others are still filing similar complaints with the regulator.
To be honest, I really do not expect the ACCC to take any action whatsoever with regard to the UEFI booting problem in Windows 8. The market share of Linux and any other operating system that runs on an x86 desktop architecture is way too small for the regulator to pay any notice about the situation.
Mac OS X doesn’t count as a problem in this situation … because Apple’s software is tied directly to its hardware. Never seen a BIOS prompt of any kind on your iMac or MacBook? Yeah. Apple doesn’t believe in those.
However, I do expect Microsoft to eventually take some action to resolve this problem and help out the Linux community. Redmond has proven itself to be a different beast in recent years from the bad old days when it used to deal with the open source revolution with a fist of steel. Today the company is more than open to working with what Eric Raymond would term “the Bazaar”. One can only hope someone at Microsoft (and its partners) pays attention to this issue before it’s too late.
Certainly, I personally would never buy a PC or laptop which I couldn’t install whatever operating system I wanted on. And I know many other people who feel the same way. If Microsoft doesn’t resolve this issue in a reasonable fashion … it will be the target of ongoing rage from geeks worldwide until it does.