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Debian on the verge to include non-free firmware in official releases

The Debian Linux project is famous for its policy to only include free software in its releases. But this isn't always optimal, especially for hardware relying on proprietary firmware software from hardware vendors.

Hardware require firmware, mostly using proprietary software
Hardware require firmware, mostly using proprietary software

Debian then finds it's policy clashing with another policy: Care about the user. Obviously Debian can't run on hardware which require non-free firmware.

Fixing the firmware mess in Debian

In today's talk "Fixing the firmware mess" at the DebConf 22 conference, Steve McIntyre took this problematic to the wider audience. Steve, who's been a DD (Debian Developer) since 1996, has seen this issue over many years – and, according to him, it's only getting worse.

When downloading a Debian release, there is the option to download the "unofficial" Debian images, which includes non-free firmware. However this download option is not well described and users need to go look for that version on their own.

Vote shows: Most developers are pro non-free firmware

In his talk, which Steve intended to be an open BoF discussion, the following options were presented to deal with the situation:

  • Keep the current situation, no change
  • Stop providing non-free unofficial images
  • Advertise the images with non-free firmware as official, alongside the classic "pure" Debian image
  • Include non-free firmware in the official Debian images
  • Other

When asking the room, which counted approximately 30-40 developers, for a vote, the vast majority voted for option 4; to include the non-free firmware in the standard Debian images.

How exactly this is going to happen is open for discussion though. Discussion between several developers showed that some were in favor of asking the user for permissions in the Debian Installer while others prefer to not ask the user (and scare the user) during the Debian installation.

Debian 12 (Bookworm) to contain non-free firmware?

The next version of Debian, version 12 (bookworm), might already contain the non-free firmware in the default images. This is certainly a decision for the users and allows Debian to (easier) install on more hardware.

Claudio Kuenzler
Claudio has been writing way over 1000 articles on his own blog since 2008 already. He is fascinated by technology, especially Open Source Software. As a Senior Systems Engineer he has seen and solved a lot of problems - and writes about them.

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