Fedora has agreed to pay Microsoft a one-time fee of $99 for the company to sign its Linux releases for use on future Windows 8, and possibly RT devices. Windows RT is the ARM-based version of Windows 8, and unlike Windows 8 proper, will only start up operating systems approved by Microsoft.
As we previously reported, the Department of Justice sued Microsoft in the mid 1990s to prevent Microsoft from blocking other operating systems from running on PCs. In a settlement, Microsoft agreed to not prohibit other operating systems for a period of fifteen years, ending in 2012.
Microsoft argues that tablets are a different market from PCs, which allows them to act like Apple and lock down the bootloader – prohibiting other operating systems, such as Linux, from running on Windows RT computers. However, even Microsoft acknowledges that Windows RT will eventually be sold on low-end PCs, both desktop, laptop, and netbook. ARM’s growing power thresholds will make it eventually a mainstream computing platform for many.
To Microsoft’s credit, the process has been revised since our last report. There is now a clearly-defined set of testing criteria, and Microsoft has selected Verisign to handle payment and processing for “kernel certification” on Windows RT. Microsoft states they will not accept money from developers directly, though they reserve the right to reject any operating system for which they do not approve of.
Hence, Microsoft will likely use Fedora to tell regulators that sideloading on Windows RT is possible — provided you install Fedora onto the Windows RT device, and then run a Linux application.
For users, the method is far from viable. Essentially, to run an application not approved by Microsoft, a user must install an entirely separate operating system, and then chose from Linux applications, many of which are not designed for tablets in the first place.
Fedora expects there to be hostility from the Linux community, for engaging in this deal. In a public statement, Fedora defended the move. Fedora cites the need to continue to make Linux accessible to end-users and corporations on all fronts – while inferring that it is up to regulators to decide if Windows RT’s bootloader lockdown is illegal or not.
This may give Fedora an edge in the Linux battle, it is unlikely that Canonical will pay $1, let alone $99, to allow rival Microsoft to evaluate, test, and approve a rival Fedora for Windows 8 or RT. Instead, it is much more likely that Canonical is pressing EU regulators this moment to force Microsoft to permit Ubuntu to boot on Windows RT tablets for the very low price of zero dollars.
The real threat to Windows RT’s bootloader comes not from Fedora or Ubunutu today, but from Microsoft refusing to sign any variant of the Android kernel. If Microsoft were to receive an Android kernel from a third-party (say, a small business), that company would likely be rejected. Microsoft still would maintain a potent killswitch, deterring anyone from making a large investment in porting an alternative operating system to the Windows RT platform.
As such, Microsoft then stands to put a small business in a David-versus-Goliath situation of having to sue Microsoft for kernel certification… something no small business likely has any legal resources to pull off.
Windows RT tablets are expected to ship late this year, following the launch of Windows 8 this fall.
It is worth noting that Fedora didn’t reference Windows RT directly, only the Microsoft Secure Boot initative, which also applies to Windows 8 desktops and notebooks. Microsoft has required Windows 8 devices to have an off-switch so that users can opt-out and install their own operating system on x86 machines, while requiring a signed kernel for RT machines. Fedora’s statement clearly ignores the ARM situation, though it is unlikely that Microsoft would refuse to sign an ARM kernel and sign the x86 variant. That would open Microsoft up to clear antitrust hazards.
Bias Statement: PhoneNews.com opposes the locked down bootloader in Windows RT. We encourage users to avoid all Windows RT devices, as we view the chilling effect of a locked down bootloader to be dangerous to truly free software everywhere. We took the same stance when AT&T blocked sideloading on its Android devices, and we’ll continue to campaign against walled gardens everywhere.
This article has been clarified since its update version, to better note the differences in Windows 8 and Windows RT Secure Boot modes, and to correct a typographical error.