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Future Debian to include non-free firmware in installer

Back in July, during the DebConf22 conference, Debian developer Steve McIntyre suggested to include non-free firmware in official Debian releases.

Steve's proposal now came to a vote with the following options:

  • Choice 1: Only one installer, including non-free firmware, Proposal by Steve McIntyre
  • Choice 2: Recommend installer containing non-free firmware, Proposal by Gunnar Wolf
  • Choice 3: Allow presenting non-free installers alongside the free one, Proposal by Bart Martens
  • Choice 4: Installer with non-free software is not part of Debian, Proposal by Simon Josefsson
  • Choice 5: Change SC for non-free firmware in installer, one installer, Proposal by Russ Allbery
  • Choice 6: Change SC for non-free firmware in installer, keep both installers, Proposal by Holger Levsen

Vote outcome

Winner of the vote turned out to be Choice 5: Change SC for non-free firmware in installer, one installer.

But what does this mean now going forward?

In the Debian Social Contract, the following sentence will be added to point 5 of the contract:

    The Debian official media may include firmware that is otherwise not
    part of the Debian system to enable use of Debian with hardware that
    requires such firmware.

This also means that in future there will be one installer. Additional installers containing non-free firmware will therefore disappear in the future:

We will publish these images as official Debian media, replacing the current media sets that do not include non-free firmware packages.

Debian installer with non-free firmware included
Debian installer with non-free firmware included

Future Debian installers will inform the user what kind of firmware is/was installed in order to run on the detected hardware, whether this is free or non-free firmware. From the proposal:

The included firmware binaries will normally be enabled by default where the system determines that they are required, but where possible we will include ways for users to disable this at boot (boot menu option, kernel command line etc.).
When the installer/live system is running we will provide information to the user about what firmware has been loaded (both free and non-free), and we will also store that information on the target system such that users will be able to find it later.

This also means that if non-free firmware was installed by the Debian Installer (d-i), the non-free repositories will automatically be added in the APT sources.list file:

Where non-free firmware is found to be necessary, the target system will also be configured to use the non-free-firmware component by default in the apt sources.list file. Our users should receive security updates and important fixes to firmware binaries just like any other installed software.

Win or loss for the community?

The question remains: Is this decision a win or a loss for the Debian Open Source Community? I consider this a win. Even though there was nothing wrong with Debian's previous rules to only use free software (and firmware) in the official installer, it prevented a lot of users to correctly use Debian on their hardware. A lot of (new) users did not know that there was also an alternative installer media containing non-free firmware. Most users actually don't know what kind of firmware their own hardware needs in order to run, so that made it fairly difficult to decide for the right installer in the first place.

This fact led to (understandable) frustration of Debian users. Alternatives were then chosen over Debian. Ubuntu for example is based on Debian but does not follow the strict Debian guidelines for free software, making it "easier" for users to get Ubuntu run out of the box on a hardware, without having to tinker around firmware software.

The decision to now include non-free firmware and inform the users about it in the installer will definitely allow more systems to run Debian. There will be less complexity, which is much needed to get new Debian users. So yes, this is a win in the long-run.

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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