Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Secure boot is Microsoft's end game on Linux

If you prefer Linux over Windows, but buy OEM Windows machines because they're cheaper, get ready to start building your own computers. ArsTechnica reports that for Windows 10, Microsoft has grand plans to keep other operating systems out using Secure Boot technology according to they're preferences. They want their own walled garden, too - along with Apple and Amazon, and probably Google.

Secure Boot technology requires that certain cryptographic keys be loaded in the BIOS. The keys are used to verify that the code used to boot the computer has not been tampered with. The problem with this technology is that Microsoft has influenced the standard to make it hard to do the same thing for Linux and other alternatives. Secure Boot already has complicated life for non-technical people to install their own operating system if they want to.

I am one of those people that Microsoft will only irritate with their plan. I like to buy Windows computers from OEMs because they're cheaper than System76. When I say OEM, I mean companies like Dell, HP and Acer. For years, I've bought Windows computers because they're subsidized with crapware, advertising masquerading as free software. The free software usually comes at a cost. You get the trial version and have to upgrade later. You get the free version and submit to data collection and privacy policies that you might not always agree to. Most of it is either time consuming to remove or pretty damn hard to remove.

So when I buy a new OEM computer from Dell, I image the computer and store the image in a safe place. Then I wipe the computer and install Ubuntu Linux and proceed to set up the computer the way I want it to be. The near future plan for OEMs with Windows 10 will very likely preclude any of this. What Microsoft would like to do is restrict the boot process to prevent anything else from running on the device. They talk a good game when it comes to the free market, but honestly, they don't want competition.

When I saw the story about Windows 10, I was reminded of the epic battle between BeOS and Microsoft Windows and how BeOS lost in the dual boot wars. Some people like to be able boot either Windows or Linux. Back then, BeOS was trying to negotiate terms for dual boot with Microsoft, but Microsoft refused to or pretended to cooperate. Eventually, BeOS went bankrupt. Microsoft is using Secure Boot to prevent dual boot computers from being easy or even a reality.

Microsoft's goal to lock down the hardware has already been accomplished on their tablets and phones. It's now very difficult to root and install what you want on those devices, and I'm not sure I would want to bother with them. My main concern is the humble desktop computer and keeping them free. Just because I buy a computer with Windows installed doesn't mean I should be restricted as to what operating system I want to run. When I buy hardware, the hardware is mine to use as I see fit. I have no need for the Windows license and there have been some fringe cases where the buyers have sued to get the money for the Windows license back. And they've won in some cases.

This growing initiative seems to prove the point to me that the money in Windows is not made on the front end, it's made on the backend, the server side. Getting people to use Windows means that Windows servers must be used to provide certain content to those customers. Of course, much of the world depends on open standards of communications and web page design, much to the chagrin of Microsoft. They're dream is to have everyone programming for Internet Explorer so that everyone is running Windows.

But there will always be guys like me. We find Windows boring, stifling and ill-suited for general purpose computing. We want a shell that actually works. We want a choice of desktop environments. We want to use open file formats that don't change with each release of the software used to create the files.

If Microsoft is successful in locking down the desktop, I will again be looking at building my own computer to my own specification. I will ignore the OEMs and work with experienced builders to get the working life I want out of my computer. The computer I have now is a Dell XPS 8700 I bought from Costco. My plan is that it should be a 5 year computer at the least. With 12 GB of RAM and the top of the line i7 CPU (at the time I bought it anyway), it should last a good 5 years. Dell makes very reliable equipment and I expect that from them. But if the next line of Dell computers is locked down for Windows, I will look elsewhere.

Here are a few good alternatives if you would like to have a Plan B:

System76.com
zareason.com
newegg.com (build your own, fights patent trolls, too)
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