We follow-up on the Fedora / Secure Boot scandal that has since received much larger media attention. While that’s a good thing in our view, there are still unanswered questions that are key to the legitimacy of this agreement.
For background, we strongly encourage you to read our original report.
In a nutshell, the Fedora project team announced that they had signed an agreement with Microsoft, to allow Microsoft to digitally sign the Fedora Linux operating system. Windows 8, and its ARM-based derivative, Windows RT, require that the firmware of a computer only run operating systems that have been digitally signed.
For the most part, these digital signatures must be made by Microsoft. That means that Microsoft decides what operating systems your future Intel-based PC, x86-or-ARM tablet, or ARM-based netbook can run.
Microsoft has required PC makers to offer an off switch, which would permit any operating system to run. But, only for x86-based computers. ARM-based PCs, netbooks, and tablets running Windows RT, will not have this option. Microsoft mandates that any computer with an ARM processor only run Microsoft-sanctioned operating systems.
Fedora’s move to embrace this process, has received a firestorm of animosity from many in the Linux community. Many Linux faithful see this as enabling Microsoft to pick a Novell-style set of winners and losers in the Linux community, and encouragement to PC makers to not resist Microsoft’s mandates.
Red Hat has defended the move, however, citing the security that a signed, UEFI-based bootloader can offer. Microsoft has also clarified that they will not accept revenue from this process, and it is likely that the one-time $99 fee for testing each Fedora kernel is far less than what Verisign charges Microsoft for the independent analysis, and approval.
Fedora, Windows RT, and a legal quagmire…
When we ran our original report, we noted that Fedora did not mention once ARM or Windows RT. Obviously, Windows RT is the elephant in the room. While Windows 8 will have an off switch to Secure Boot, allowing anyone to bypass these operating system restrictions… Windows RT is quite the opposite.
Windows RT will only run operating systems that are signed by Microsoft. Microsoft, has refused to comment on if any operating systems other than Windows will be permitted to run. Including, Fedora. And, they’ve told OEMs to expect the worst.
Apologists for Microsoft, including people like Ed Bott and Paul Thurrott, have chastised PhoneNews.com directly for challenging Microsoft on this walled-garden position. Their position is that Microsoft is doing no different than Apple, and Apple has been allowed to lock down iOS without any reprisal from regulators, let alone consumers in general.
The difference between Windows RT and iOS
The difference, of course, is that Windows RT is not limited to just tablets. Microsoft has clearly stated their intent to launch Windows RT on ARM-based netbooks, and PCs in general. ARM is becoming powerful enough to handle most mainstream computing tasks.
Combined with a proper graphics processor, ARM can handle watching (and editing) high definition video, web browsing, document creation, and just about everything an ordinary person does with computing in a day. As iPad has shown, a low-cost ARM-based Desktop PC can even dominate in gaming.
Fedora speaks, then stops speaking about Windows RT
Shortly after posting our article on the matter, Matthew Garrett of the Fedora project chimed in to let us know that Fedora won’t be headed to Windows RT:
Fedora believes that it’s vital that end-users be able to choose which software runs on their devices, and as such we have no intention of producing a signed version of Fedora for Windows RT devices.
We followed up with Mr. Garrett, asking him if it was Microsoft, or Red Hat, that refused to entertain a signed version of Fedora for Windows RT. Unfortunately, Mr. Garrett declined to comment, directing us to Red Hat media relations.
After contacting Red Hat media relations multiple times, we were promised a clarification. Unfortunately, after repeated re-requests, Red Hat’s media relations department has become unresponsive. We will be happy to follow up if we do hear back from Red Hat, and will continue to ask them for an answer.
The burning question does remain though, did Microsoft tell Red Hat that it would be barred from offering Fedora on ARM-based Windows PCs? Or, did Fedora opt-out on their own, for some unknown reason? It is hard to remain independent, and not accuse Microsoft of the former.
There is little evidence to indicate that Red Hat would simply choose to not offer Fedora on ARM systems, and only on x86 machines. Fedora currently runs on a broad range of ARM systems and chipsets. All evidence points to Microsoft refusing to allow ARM signatures for Fedora, and Red Hat choosing a half-agreement for x86 PCs and tablets.
And then there’s the GPL
There is also a GPL argument involved in the signing of a Linux operating system. Some developers have successfully argued to Apple that GPL-based iOS applications should be removed from Apple’s App Store. The argument stems from the fact that code which is digitally signed, is modified by the signer (in that case, Apple). Since Apple does not offer the source code for the iOS apps, the argument is that Apple should not be allowed to distribute GPL-based applications for iOS devices.
While this argument may or may not have merit, a digital signature of a Linux operating system by Microsoft, may compel Microsoft to disclose the source code for any product that was used to sign the kernel. The kernel’s compiled code would then contain a digital signature which is not covered under the GPL. Also, Microsoft could be argued as being a distributor, having signed code and then handed it back to the open source community in a signed manner. A strict interpretation of the GPL may require Microsoft to host the source code for all signed-by-Microsoft releases of Fedora.
There is, however, the counter-argument that digital signatures do not violate GPL, as they only provide authentication for the enclosed binary. Those same arguments would argue that Apple would be in the right to host GPL-based iOS apps. Clearly, these types of questions are still largely uncharted territory for Microsoft, Apple, and Red Hat.
Regulators in the United States and European Union are taking another look at Windows RT. Sources report the primary reason being that, in general, consumers will not be able to differentiate between an ARM-based desktop and an Intel-based desktop computer.
If Microsoft accomplishes this two-processor approach, where x86-PCs will be allowed to run Linux, and ARM-PCs running Windows RT will not be allowed to run Linux, the results will likely be devastating to the Linux platform.
One thing Microsoft will achieve, if successful, is blocking users from migrating over to Android. Google has stated their intentions to unveil a unified Android-Chrome OS unification as a transcending operating system. Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwhich already makes significant improvements, aimed at making it a palatable desktop operating system.
PhoneNews.com can confirm that future versions of Android able to run native code on-par with Windows and OS X, and that the goal is a pressing matter inside Google. It’s only a matter of time before Android enters the desktop operating system wars. If Microsoft is successful, it will be difficult to tell which Windows
8 RT computers can be migrated to Android, and the task will likely be too difficult for the average user to accomplish on their own.
With ARM-based desktops only likely to increase, the only way to migrate a Windows RT machine to Android, will be to drag it to the Recycle Bin. And that’s the awful choice that Microsoft wants.