year after it launched its Centrino chip package for building notebooks with wireless networking abilities, Intel has begun a public project to let Linux take advantage of the hardware.
On Tuesday, Intel programmer James Ketrenos announced on the Linux kernel mailing list a software project to let Linux use some features of Intel's 802.11b wireless networking gear. The open-source software module is hosted at the SourceForge site for open-source collaboration projects.

Centrino includes the Pentium M processor, along with a wireless networking module and an Intel chipset to link the two and other computer subsystems. Although Linux could run on the processor, the only way the OS could use the wireless networking was through software that piggybacked on the "driver" software that Microsoft Windows uses to communicate with the wireless hardware.

Intel's move had a warm reception. "Thank you for doing this! The driver looks quite good on first inspection too!" wrote Arjan van de Ven, a Red Hat programmer working on the new 2.6 version of Linux, in a posting to the mailing list.

Linux programmers have petitioned Intel to provide support in the Centrino hardware; the pressure led the chipmaker to a policy whereby Linux and Windows drivers will be released close to simultaneously by the end of 2004.

Intel is working on Linux drivers for wireless networking chips that add support for the faster 802.11a and 802.11g standards as well, spokeswoman Barbara Grimes said. "We're starting with the 802.11b driver. The next step will be the 802.11b/g driver. After that, we'll work on an a/b/g driver," she said, declining to detail the company's schedule goals.

The core, or kernel, of Linux is governed by the General Public License (GPL), which lets anyone see, change or distribute the software but requires that changes be published if the changed version is distributed. Intel's wireless driver was released under the GPL.

Intel had lagged with Centrino support for Linux because it was concerned an open-source driver would reveal proprietary information, said Will Swope, general manager of Intel's Software and Solutions Group, in a January interview. Though Swope said Intel was considering a proprietary driver, Grimes said on Wednesday that Intel currently has no plans for a proprietary driver for Linux.

Intel's wireless networking driver itself is open-source software, but it's accompanied by a required proprietary module of "firmware," programming code that runs on the wireless networking subsystem itself.

Both the Windows and Linux drivers use proprietary firmware code, but for the Linux driver, Intel moved a "very little" amount of additional proprietary code into firmware, Grimes said.

Intel's driver doesn't support some features, including Wired Equivalency Privacy (WEP) encryption and ad-hoc networks between two computers. In addition, it doesn't support some power-saving features, Ketrenos said.

"We are planning to add support of all key wireless features (ad-hoc, WEP, and so on) over the next few months," Ketrenos said, or "quicker with help from others in the community."

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