Windows 8 PC: No Linux?
According to the rumor mill, Windows 8 PC systems will come shipped with a new BIOS replacement using UEFI (the extension of the EFI standard). This new replacement boot system apparently comes shipped with a secured booting system that, some say, will be locked to Windows 8 alone. On the other hand, the Linux distributions are not entirely sure how the secure boot systems will be implemented. Are Linux distributions being prematurely alarmist? Let’s explore.
What does this mean?
For Windows 8 users, probably not much. Purchasing a new PC will be business as usual. For Microsoft, and assuming UEFI secure boot cannot be disabled or reset, it means you can’t load another operating system on the hardware. Think of locked and closed phones and you’ll get the idea. For Linux, that would mean the end of Linux on PCs (at least, not unless Linux distributions jump thorough some secure booting hoops). Ok, so that’s the grim view of this. However, for Linux users, there will likely be other options. That is, buying a PC that isn’t locked. Or, alternatively, resetting the PC back to its factory default state of being unlocked (which the UEFI should support).
On the other hand, dual booting may no longer be an option with secure boot enabled. That means, it may not be possible to install both Windows and Linux onto the system and choose to boot one or the other at boot time. On other other hand, we do not know if Windows 8 requires UEFI secure boot to boot or whether it can be disabled. So far it appears to be required, but if you buy a boxed retail edition of Windows 8 (which is not yet available), it may be possible to disable secure boot. It may be that some of the released to manufacturing (OEM) editions require secure boot. Some editions may not.
PC Manufacturers and Windows 8
The real question here, though, is what’s driving UEFI secure booting? Is it Windows? Is it the PC manufacturers? Is it a consortium? I’m not exactly sure. Whatever the impetus is to move in this direction may lead Microsoft back down the antitrust path once again. Excluding all other operating systems from PC hardware is a dangerous precedent as this has not been attempted on this hardware before. Yes, with phones, iPads and other ‘closed’ devices, we accept this. On PC hardware, we have not accepted this ‘closed’ nature because it has never been closed. So, this is a dangerous game Microsoft is playing, once again.
Microsoft anti-trust suit renewed?
Microsoft should tread on this ground carefully. Asking PC manufacturers to lock PCs to exclusively Windows 8 use is a lawsuit waiting to happen. It’s just a matter of time before yet another class action lawsuit begins and, ultimately, turns into a DOJ antitrust suit. You would think that Microsoft would have learned its lesson by its previous behaviors in the PC marketplace. There is no reason that Windows needs to lock down the hardware in this way.
If every PC manufacturer begins producing PCs that preclude the loading of Linux or other UNIX distributions, this treads entirely too close to antitrust territory for Microsoft yet again. If Linux is excluded from running on the majority of PCs, this is definitely not wanted behavior. This rolls us back to the time when Microsoft used to lock down loading of Windows on the hardware over every other operating system on the market. Except that last time, nothing stopped you from wiping the PC and loading Linux. You just had to pay the Microsoft tax to do it. At that time, you couldn’t even buy a PC without Windows. This time, according to reports, you cannot even load Linux with secure booting locked to Windows 8. In fact, you can’t even load Windows 7 or Windows XP, either. Using UEFI secure boot on Windows 8 PCs treads within millimeters of this same collusionary behavior that Microsoft was called on many years back, and ultimately went to court over and lost much money on.
Microsoft needs to listen and tread carefully
Tread carefully, Microsoft. Locking PCs to running only Windows 8 is as close as you can get to the antitrust suits you thought you were done with. Unless PC manufacturers give ways of resetting and turning off the UEFI secure boot system to allow non-secure operating systems, Microsoft will once again be seen in collusion with PC manufacturers to exclude all other operating systems from UEFI secure boot PCs. That is about as antitrust as you can get.
I’d fully expect to see Microsoft (and possibly some PC makers) in DOJ court over antitrust issues. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. I predict by early 2014 another antitrust suit will have materialized, assuming the way that UEFI works comes true. On the other hand, this issue is easily mitigated by UEFI PC makers allowing users to disable the UEFI secure boot to allow a BIOS boot and Linux to be loaded. So, the antitrust suits will entirely hinge on how flexible the PC manufacturers set up the UEFI secure booting. If both Microsoft and the PC makers have been smart about this change, UEFI booting can be disabled. If not, we know the legal outcome.
For Windows 8, it’s likely that we’ll see more people moving to use Linux as their base OS with Windows 8 virtualized (except for gamers where direct hardware is required). If Windows 8 is this locked down, then it’s better to lock down VirtualBox than the physical hardware.
Death Knell for Windows?
Note that should the UEFI secure boot system be as closed as predicted, this may be the final death knell for Windows and, ultimately, Microsoft. The danger is in the UEFI secure boot system itself. UEFI is new and untested in the mass market. This means that not only is Windows 8 new (and we know how that goes bugwise), now we have an entirely new untested boot system in secure boot UEFI. This means that if anything goes wrong in this secure booting system that Windows 8 simply won’t boot. And believe me, I predict there will be many failures in the secure booting system itself. The reason, we are still relying on mechanical hard drives that are highly prone to partial failures. Even while solid state drives are better, they can also go bad. So, whatever data the secure boot system relies on (i.e. decryption keys) will likely be stored somewhere on the hard drive. If this sector of the hard drive fails, no more boot. Worse, if this secure booting system requires an encrypted hard drive, that means no access to the data on the hard drive after failure ever.
I’d predict there will be many failures related to this new UEFI secure boot that will lead to dead PCs. But, not only dead PCs, but PCs that offer no access to the data on the hard drives. So people will lose everything on their computer.
As people realize this aspect of this local storage system on an extremely closed system, they will move toward cloud service devices to prevent data loss. Once they realize the benefits of cloud storage, the appeal of storing things on local hard drives and most of the reasons to use Windows 8 will be lost. Gamers may be able to keep the Windows market alive a bit longer, otherwise. On the other hand, this why a gaming company like Valve software is hedging its bets and releasing Linux versions of their games. For non-gamers, desktop and notebook PCs running Windows will be less and less needed and used. In fact, I contend this is already happening. Tablets and other cloud storage devices are already becoming the norm. Perhaps not so much in the corporate world as yet, but once cloud based Office suites get better, all bets are off. So, combining the already trending move towards limited storage cloud devices, closing down PC systems in this way is, at best, one more nail in Windows’ coffin. At worst, Redmond is playing Taps for Windows.
Closing down the PC market in this way is not the answer. Microsoft has stated it wants to be more innovative as Steve Balmer recently proclaimed. Yet, I see moves like this and this proves that Microsoft has clearly not changed and has no innovation left. Innovation doesn’t have to and shouldn’t lead to closed PC systems and antitrust lawsuits.