SAN FRANCISCO--Smarting from criticism from open-source programmers, Intel has committed to release Linux versions of essential supporting software at about the same time it releases Windows versions.
The change in development plans, which Intel President Paul Otellini disclosed internally earlier this month, is due to go into effect by the end of 2004, Will Swope, general manager of Intel's Software and Solutions Group, said Wednesday at the Intel Developer Forum here.

The change was a response, in part, to criticism that Intel hasn't released software or specifications to let Linux use the wireless networking technology of Intel's Centrino mobile computer technology. Centrino has been on the market for nearly one year, but at present, Linux users can use the wireless technology only by wrapping a Linux interface around a Windows software module.

"It speaks to the market demand for Linux," said TechKnowledge Strategies analyst Mike Feibus of Intel's change. "Intel I think felt the sting by supporting it later. I don't think it'll make that mistake again."

Support of devices such as network adapters or graphics chips comes through software called drivers. Swope said Linux drivers will arrive during the same release cycle as Windows drivers, though not necessarily the same day.

Linux is used on only a small fraction of laptop and desktop computers, compared with Windows, so the Centrino issue doesn't affect very many people numerically. But Linux has won the hearts of many programmers and students who influence future technology directions, so it's a market Intel is anxious not to offend.

"If you are a Linux developer, we want to make sure you can use an Intel platform as easily (as), if not more easily than, any other platform on the planet," Swope said.

Swope expects Intel's initial Centrino support to come through the release of a proprietary driver. The company is reluctant to ship an open-source driver at this point because of concerns that showing the underlying programming instructions will reveal secret information about Intel's wireless networking technology, he has said.

Proprietary drivers aren't unusual in the open-source realm. For example, Nvidia releases proprietary Linux drivers for its graphics chips.

However, many open-source programmers prefer either open-source drivers or specifications that let them write their own drivers. With proprietary drivers, Linux users must wait for a company to update the software when a change comes, such as the new 2.6 kernel at the heart of Linux. Plus, they can be left in the lurch if a company goes out of business.

Theo de Raadt, head of another open-source operating system, OpenBSD, steers people away from Intel and toward the Prism wireless networking chips from GlobespanVirata.

"Everyone in the open-source community is buying Prism-chip-based (wireless network) cards," de Raadt said. "The chipset is fully documented, and open-source drivers exist on all operating systems."

Intel writes drivers for several components, including the chipsets that link processors to the rest of a computer system, chipsets that include integrated graphics capabilities, and XScale processor-based devices such as smart phones, Swope said. Intel has about 500 programmers writing and validating drivers, he added.
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