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For a number of reasons -- mostly cost and its presence in emerging markets -- VIA has long been the graphics hardware of choice for Linux users. However, the company's drivers have been closed source, and there has long been friction between VIA and the open source community, which has been successful in recent years in opening the drivers primarily through efforts such as Unichrome.
Ivor Hewitt, one of four core developers behind the Unichrome driver that provides open source support for the VIA/S3G Unichrome graphics controller, said VIA's history on the matter illustrates a lackluster approach and rocky relationship with open source developers. Hewitt, who began reverse-engineering the ddmpeg library after he became frustrated working with VIA's limited code and API releases, said VIA's open source plan has missed the point.
"Attempts to discuss these problems were met with silence or simply statements that they had released their API and would not be providing any more information," Hewitt said in an email to NewsForge. "They didn't even provide a reference manual for their proprietary API."
Hewitt explained that after attempts to work with VIA and the company's code, open source developers chose to drop the ddmpeg interface and extend the standard XvMC interface used by Nvidia to provide MPEG acceleration. Use of the standard API proved fruitful, as illustrated by the MPlayer interface, which took only two days to be implemented.
Hewitt -- who also complained the VIA open source package contains a non-free, opaque binary library that encapsulates its MPEG interface -- said that although VIA's source code releases are a recognition of the significant Linux market, they miss the point of community development.
"It provides hope in the fact that it shows that VIA now considers the Linux market to be an important one," he wrote. "On the other hand, it is disheartening when I hear statements from VIA saying, 'We hope this will encourage open source developers to support our platform.' Open source developers have been supporting their platform as best they can. VIA, however, has simply not been engaging with the community. VIA refuses to release programming specifications for their MPEG chipsets; these have to be reverse-engineered to work, which is simply crazy. It is a complete waste of time and effort. I think we simply need to look at VIA's actions to date to decide whether they have a constructive, cohesive open source policy."
"I wouldn't describe it as a marketing scam, but they just seem to be getting it so wrong," Hewitt continued. "Perhaps it is fear of getting involved and losing control, and they won't retain complete control of all code written for their platform. This really is missing the point of open source. For example, take their actions over Xine and MPlayer -- they forked the entire codebase of both projects simply to add support for the ddmpeg library. They didn't get involved in the projects, they didn't contribute to the mailing lists, and then they make a bold press release announcement saying they have contributed to the open source community by providing an 'enhanced' version. This is not the right way to contribute to the open source community."
Hewitt also expressed some concern that Unichrome will now be facing competition from a major corporation that has technical specs, a large team of developers, and marketing power.
"How are we going make our voices heard when VIA up 'til now has always tried to steer customers to their binary drivers and will now try to steer them to their source drivers instead?" he said.
Nevertheless, Hewitt described Unichrome as a healthy project, and indicated the community will likely find the open source effort more advantageous.
"I don't think people will choose the Unichrome project driver simply because it is completely open source," he said. "I think they will make that decision based on the fact that there is a vibrant developer community around our driver, there are mailing lists they can discuss problems in, and they can clearly see all the changes we make to our code and why."
'This is not open source'
Luc Verhaegen, who started the Unichrome Project, echoed Hewitt and argued the code recently released by VIA has been available for quite some time. "All it did was drop the request form nonsense," Verhaegen said in an email to NewsForge.
That "nonsense," as Verhaegen described it, has been accompanied by VIA ignoring all X-related work and making "quite irregular releases," making the source code available through an Open Source Developers (OSD) request form.
"Here, they had people request source, after which some drone reviewed the application and could accept it or reject it without ever getting word back (which has happened several times)," he wrote. "This is not open source."
Verhaegen said after his verbosity on the OSD, he was able to connect with VIA's Joseph Chan -- who is part of the software development team in VIA's Taipei office -- to fix some dogging issues: fixing of non-free licenses; offering tarballs for direct download to free up admin support on Via Arena, where Verhaegen was banned for using the words "Linux, buzzword, marketing, and scam" in a question, he said; and change to a disclaimer issue with VIA's version of the MIT license, which Verhaegen said is only partially fixed.
"For any new file we drag in, we need to start begging again," he said.
Verhaegen -- who called VIA's latest press release "a half truth" and "hugely blown out of proportion" -- added that VIA is further antagonizing the community by trying to regulate the distribution of source code it claims to have opened, and by abstaining from participation in active open source projects.
"VIA keeps on ignoring open source developers and users, and keeps on forking highly active and high-profile open source projects," he said. "There is no help for anyone on VIA Arena, especially not if you happen to use anything but the latest Windows XP (beware if you use anything but Internet Explorer). There is and will be no change in VIA's behavior towards the free and open source world."Next: VIA responds