Right now, Linux users typically rely on proprietary driver software if they want to use graphics acceleration chips and hardware to improve graphics performance to speed up displays of 3D tanks in a battle video game, for example.
But this proprietary approach poses ethical, legal and practical problems. Intel sees the open source move as a way to attract customers to its graphics products such as its upcoming 965 Express chipset and give it an advantage over rivals ATI Technologies and Nvidia.
"Having open-source drivers gives us a big edge in this market," said Dirk Hohndel, chief technologist of Intel's Open Source Technology Center. The software, available at a new Web site, is already being integrated with relevant open source projects, he said.
Intel's effort reflects the curious intersection of technological, legal, social and business motivations that operate in the open source realm. By participating in the collaborative programming movement, Intel builds ties with outside developers and open source fans. On the other hand, it relinquishes some control over the software and forgoes the possibility of keeping some coding secrets.
And one politically important ally, the Free Software Foundation, was delighted with Intel's move.
"It's a very important step in the evolution of the industry," said foundation attorney Eben Moglen, who is overseeing a revamp of the General Public License (GPL) that governs the Linux kernel. "The move that Intel has taken, toward making better interoperability with free operating systems by abandoning secrecy, is the sign of a new competitive approach."
More practically, Intel's move is well-timed to dovetail with Red Hat and Novell projects to build fancy graphical interfaces into Linux. The new interfaces, often referred to as "bling" and "eye candy", require 3D acceleration.
Although enthusiasts who favour the glitzy interfaces may benefit from Intel's move, it's not clear whether there will be a benefit for the chipmaker itself. For now, engineering customers using Linux for high-end graphics work, such as mechanical design, rely on add-in graphics cards, not on Intel's integrated graphics. And gaming the big market for 3D graphics uses Microsoft Windows almost exclusively.
Intel has a major part of the overall graphics market; it shipped the graphics chips for 40 percent of PCs in the second quarter of 2006. ATI's share was 28 percent, and Nvidia's was 20 percent, according to research analyst Jon Peddie.
Peddie thinks it unlikely ATI or Nvidia will release open source drivers as a result of Intel's move. Details of the hardware interfaces for graphics chips are the "family jewels... and expose how the chip itself works," he said. "Nvidia doesn't want ATI to know that, and vice versa."
ATI didn't immediately comment on its plans, but Nvidia said it wouldn't change its approach as a result of Intel's move. "At this time, it does not make sense for us to open source our graphics drivers," Nvidia spokesman Brian del Rizzo said. "We are confident in our ability to provide our customers with the best graphics solutions possible."
But Michael Larabel, who runs the Phoronix Linux graphics site, believes there could be repercussions.
"Intel's move may cause Nvidia and ATI to rethink open sourcing some areas of their drivers, improving the level of support, or funnelling more resources to their Linux department," Larabel said.
And it will also certainly be watched closely at Intel's main Silicon Valley competitor, AMD, which in July announced plans to acquire ATI for $5.4bn. AMD has worked closely with open source programmers on several occasions, in adding Linux support for 64bit x86 chips and for AMD's virtualisation technology, for example.
"Ideally, if AMD is able to realise the potential of open source ATI Linux drivers, we could very well see GPL... drivers within the next few years," Larabel said.
Margaret Lewis, AMD's director of commercial solutions, wouldn't be pinned down. "It is hard to speculate if open source drivers can give a competitive advantage over Intel and Nvidia," she said. "Open source drivers could help ease the difficulty of dealing with proprietary drivers with Linux. However, proprietary drivers often provide better optimisations or support more features. Having both types of drivers available gives customers a choice of which approach they want to take."
Open source advocates have expressed several objections to proprietary drivers. These often stop working if a computer user updates Linux, forcing the computer user to reinstall the driver. Also, some believe the GPL doesn't permit proprietary kernel modules to be plugged into Linux.
Number-two Linux seller Novell recently banned proprietary Linux modules, though it streamlined the process by which people can download them from their creators.
Timed for new chipset
Intel released the graphics software just before the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo, which begins on 15 August. But the main impetus for the open source driver timing was that Intel needed to support its 965 "Broadwater" chipset. The chipset is used in conjunction with Intel's new Core 2 Duo "Conroe" processor and is being released next week, Hohndel said.
"We're releasing drivers before the hardware gets released, which is a nice change of pace," he said.
Indeed, after Intel's release of open source Centrino wireless-network drivers lagged behind Windows by more than a year, Intel pledged to make its Linux support simultaneous.
Intel has four programmers working on the driver project as well as five people testing the code, Hohndel said. Among the programmers is Keith Packard, formerly of HP and Suse Linux. Packard is a major figure behind the X.org software that handles basic 2D graphics for Linux.
Intel will maintain the project, but hopes for outside contributions as well, Hohndel said. The work affects three components: X.org; the Mesa3D software that handles 3D graphics; and the Linux kernel software that mediates between the two other components, Hohndel said.
One open source expert at HP favours Intel's approach. "All things being equal, we will choose silicon for which we can get open source drivers every time," said Bdale Garbee, chief technologist of the open source and Linux group at HP.
Proprietary drivers mean more work for HP when supporting Linux, Garbee said. When software support for particular hardware isn't built into the Linux kernel: "It gets progressively more difficult for a company such as HP to do the recurring engineering work associated with keeping fresh driver versions for new kernels available," Garbee said.