There are plenty of open source operating systems available for laptop and desktop computers. But in order to run Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, or other Linux-based software on most computers, you’ll need to rely on some proprietary, closed-source firmware for the bootloader, WiFi card, graphics, or other hardware.
Libreboot is a project that takes aim at one of those stumbling blocks. It’s a free and open source bootloader designed to replace the BIOS or UEFI firmware on laptops. Right now there are only a handful of older computers supported, including some aging Lenovo, Apple, and Asus systems.
But one developer says he’s managed to port Libreboot to the Asus C201 Chromebook, bringing a free bootloader to this $159 laptop with an ARM-based processor.
That’s good news for fans of free software. But there’s some bad news too: the bootloader may be free, but the graphics and wireless hardware isn’t.
You can get around the wireless problem by using a USB WiFi dongle with open source drivers. But if you want hardware-accelerated graphics or video encoding and decoding, you’ll either need to rely on a proprietary blob or roll up your sleeves and help reverse engineer a driver for the laptop’s Mali-T764 graphics.
The Libreboot port comes from Paul Kocialkowski, lead developer of the Replicant operating system which is a version of Google Android designed to run completely free software with no proprietary code.
He says it’s currently possible to run Debian with Libreboot on the Asus C201 Chromebook, with support for the Xfce4 desktop environment and apps including the Firefox web browser and LibreOffice suite of office apps. But desktop environments that rely on graphics hardware, such as GNOME Shell won’t work without a graphics driver, since the CPU in the Asus C201 isn’t powerful enough to render the graphics using software alone.
Clearly, both the projects to create a free/libre version of Android and to bring 100-percent free software to a Chromebook are aimed at people who want to run devices that lack proprietary, closed-source code.
There’s nothing stopping you from running Android as-is or from using Chrome OS or even an alternate operating system like Ubuntu on a Chromebook today. But for folks holding out for a free and open source alternative, it’s interesting to see at least some progress being made to bring Libreboot to current-generation hardware… even if it’s relatively slow hardware when compared with the latest Intel Broadwell-powered laptops.
The Asus Chromebook C201 features a RockChip RK3288 ARM Cortex-A17 quad-core processor, 2GB to 4GB of RAM, and 16GB of solid state storage.
Some other recent efforts to create fully free and open laptops have relied on more powerful hardware… but have been less successful in supporting free software bootloaders.
It’s possible that the Asus C201 Chromebook and other hardware in this category will never be fully functional either. There’s no way of knowing whether someone will successfully create a free graphics driver. But if you don’t care about using the graphics hardware or built-in wireless card, it is at least theoretically possible to run nothing but free software on this inexpensive laptop.
This is excellent news. When will be Lima finalised? Will we ever get a free WiFi driver?
LLVMpipe works already pretty well today (I believe that was the inspiration of Mantis that is the basis for Vulkan) on lower end ARM plateform. So you can use it for simple 3D. Else you can choose to still use libhybris+(android or chromium) blobs drivers.
This is very exciting news, if they get Lima driver for this and open source VPU then this will be Linux laptop for the ages. Wondering how Vulkan will affect the need for drivers. Exciting times ahead for open source/GNU/Linux kind. I wonder if they are working on this for other Rockchip chrome-books like the chrome-book Flip.
I’m holding out for a beer without calories… Nope, not happening.
Very Interesting, but beware… You may lose Libreboot at some point if the device manufacturer and/or Google (e.g., Android/ChromeOS) decides to try and push something like a CPU/SoC microcode update out that clobbers it. So you probably don’t want this Chromebook device with Libreboot running your heart pacemaker (especially when browsing the “pipes”) – or then again maybe you do 😉 Check the Libreboot FAQ for more on this stuff: and keep in-mind that although they talk mostly about Intel systems, there is not much stopping the ARM-based chipset in this Chromebook from being just as nasty.
Not sure I follow, presumably if you flash Libreboot, you will proceed to wipe Chrome OS off and install another OS? And having done so, how would the manufacturer push updates to your machine?
On a Chromebook let’s say you move to Android, then you still face Google which may choose to push you back to ChromeOS or just dump you off Android itself. In another case, let’s say you (again) start from a Chromebook and somehow by having libreboot manage to move to Windows. Microsoft, on trying to “update” your system sees a different boot loader process and pushes something to the machine trying to “fix” it, or just disables it. Same possibility exists with Apple.
Moving to Linux/Unix is typically different. Linux/Unix gives the user plenty of control (or enough rope to hang himself, depending on your point of view), but there’s nothing stopping someone from building a Linux/Unix enviornment that is locked-down tight and actively defensive as well.
Remember there are multiple vectors to “attack” an unauthorized boot and/or run environment, everything from a microcode update, to system management hardware (e.g., IME), to Firmware/Board Support Packages (FSP & BSP’s), right through the higher level drivers up to the OS base runtime processes. These days, if they don’t want you around, as long as you let them touch your machine – it is almost a certainty that you are going away.
So while the while the work done to get Libreboot working on this Chromebook is great if you want to move to another Libre OS like xBSD or Linux (who will welcome you with open arms), moving to most any other OS today may get you shot down PDQ. Moving from ChromeOS to Android may be an exception, because Google pretty much still owns you either way.
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