Microsoft says that Secure Boot, a new technology it’s introducing with Windows 8, will protect us from hackers but nearly 13,000 people have some, shall we say, reservations.
They’ve signed an online petition calling for computer makers to ensure that they don’t end up shipping PCs that can only run Windows.
The controversy has been brewing for a few weeks, with Microsoft saying that everything will be just fine, and the Linux community fretting about a possible flanking attack.
For Linux fans, there’s a sense of dèjá vu. Microsoft backed a very similar technology called Palladium about 10 years ago, but it went nowhere after an open source backlash.
This time around, even the Linux geeks concede that Secure Boot is a good idea. It uses cryptographic keys, stored in the computer’s firmware, to make sure that hackers haven’t tampered with the operating system. That’s the same kind of technology that Apple has used successfully with its iPhone, and security experts generally agree that it’s made the iPhone more secure. The problem is that nobody is completely sure whether Linux geeks are going to suddenly have to jailbreak their PCs in order to run the Penguin. That would be a step back.
Red Hat engineer Matthew Garrett first raised the alarm last month. Now, the Free Software Foundation has joined the fray, launching its online petition in hopes of pressuring hardware makers to keep their systems from becoming Windows-only devices.
Because Windows is by far the most popular PC operating system, many free-software enthusiasts worry that computer makers won’t take any extra steps that might be necessary to let other operating systems work on their PCs.
“This could be a feature deserving of the name, as long as the user is able to authorize the programs she wants to use,” the FSF said on its website. “However, we are concerned that Microsoft and hardware manufacturers will implement these boot restrictions in a way that will prevent users from booting anything other than Windows.”
If that’s the case, the FSF says, forget about Secure Boot; better to call this “Restricted Boot.”
While it’s now commonplace for servers to ship ready to run Windows or Linux, that’s not exactly a given when it comes to PCs, where Linux has about 1 percent marketshare, according to Jay Lyman, an analyst with industry research firm The 451 Group. “It seems like the desktop market is kind of going backward to where the hardware is tied to an operating system,” he says.
That’s a worry for Anthony Schmidt, a self-declared Linux enthusiast who lives in Renton, Washington, not far from Microsoft’s headquarters.
He’s signing the petition because he wants hardware makers to know that he wants to run whatever he likes on his PC, not just Windows 8.
Schmidt is 30, but he was using Linux back when it took a lot of tinkering to get it to run on a PC. He remembers driving back and forth from his local computer store trying to find cards and components that worked with Linux. “You’d end up gong to the store, finding what they had and then coming home to see if it would work.”
He doesn’t relish the idea of returning to these days.
Like Lyman, Schmidt is worried about PCs becoming harder to tinker with. He blames the “gadget culture,” which seems to be making tech users more passive. “It’s not what can I make the device do. It’s what does the device do,” he says.
Microsoft, for its part, didn’t want to talk to us about Secure Boot. But in a blog post, Microsoft Windows Division President Steven Sinofsky said that the technology will give customers “full and complete control over the PC.”
Photo: courtesy Gilad Rom/Flickr