Steve McIntyre, leader of the Debian project for several years, took the initiative to rethink Debian's attitude towards shipping proprietary firmware, which is currently not included in the official installation images and is provided in a separate "non-free" repository.
in opinion by Steve, trying to achieve the ideal of delivering only open source software creates difficulties unnecessary for users, who in many cases have to install proprietary firmware if they want their hardware to work properly.
Proprietary firmware is placed in a separate non-free repository, along with other packages distributed under open and non-free licences. The non-free repository is not officially part of the Debian project and the packages it contains they cannot be included in the installation or live builds.
Because of this, installation images with proprietary firmware are built separately and are classified as unofficial, even though they are formally developed and maintained by the Debian project.
Thus, a certain status quo has been achieved in the community, in which the desire to distribute only open source software and the need for firmware for users are combined. There is also a small set of free firmware, which is included in the official builds and the main repository, but there are very few such firmwares and they are not enough in most cases.
Debian's approach creates many problems, including inconvenience to users and wasted resources by building, testing, and hosting unofficial builds with closed firmware. The project presents official images as the main recommended builds, but it only confuses these users as they encounter hardware support issues during the installation process.
The use of unofficial builds unknowingly leads to the popularization of non-free software, since the user, along with the firmware, also receives a non-free repository connected with other non-free software, whereas if the firmware were offered separately, it would be possible to do it without including the non-free repository.
Recently, manufacturers have increasingly resorted to using external firmware loaded by the operating system, rather than supplying firmware in the permanent memory of the devices themselves. This external firmware is required by many modern graphics, sound, and network adapters.
At the same time, the question of how much firmware can be attributed to the requirement to supply only free software is ambiguous, since, in fact, firmware is made on hardware devices, and not on the system, and it refers to equipment. With the same success, modern computers, equipped even with completely free distributions, run firmware embedded in the equipment. The only difference is that the operating system loads part of the firmware, while others are already installed in ROM or Flash memory.
Steve has presented five main options for the design of the firmware release in Debian, which is scheduled to be put to a general vote by the developers:
- Leave everything as is, supply closed firmware only in separate unofficial assemblies.
- Stop providing unofficial builds with non-free firmware and align the distribution with the project's ideology of delivering only free software.
- Move unofficial builds with firmware into the official category and ship them side by side and in the same place with builds that include only freeware, making it easier for the user to find the desired firmware.
- Include proprietary firmware in regular official builds and refuse to provide individual unofficial builds. The downside of this approach is that the non-free repository is enabled by default.
- Separate the proprietary firmware from the non-free repository into a separate non-free firmware component and push it to another repository that does not require activation of the non-free repository. Add an exception to the project rules that allows a non-free firmware component to be included in regular installation assemblies. Thus, it will be possible to refuse the formation of separate unofficial assemblies, include firmware in regular assemblies, and not activate the non-free repository for users.
Steve himself advocates the adoption of the fifth point, which will allow the project not to deviate too much from the promotion of free software, but at the same time make the product convenient and useful for users.
The installer proposes to explicitly separate free and non-free firmware, which gives the user the opportunity to make an informed decision and inform him if the available free firmware is compatible with current hardware and if there are projects to create free firmware for existing devices. At the download stage, it is also planned to add a setting to disable the package with non-free firmware.