Open Standards and buying Linux Hardware

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jun 09, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

In the last six weeks, I have outfitted my Ubuntu tablet, bought a webcam and a microphone, and replaced my main computer. In the middle of all these purchases, I suddenly realized that one of the signs of how far Linux has come is the ready availability of compatible hardware.

It didn't used to be that way. Less than a decade ago, buying hardware for Linux was a research project. You saw what was available at the store or online, and then headed to obscure sites on the Internet to learn what would work and to what degree. You asked for other people's experiences. You carefully learned a few basic rules, such as the fact that a Postscript printer would always work, or that, while Logitech did not officially support Linux, its devices kept close to common standards and would generally work -- most of the time, anyway. If you were being thorough, you might delay a purchase as long as a week or two while you researched. Even then, you always a moment of suspense when you booted with a device for the first time, not relaxing until it actually worked.

The process was so laborious that, in 2007, I wrote an article summarizing all the places to research supported hardware. It seemed a necessary article, considering that few manufacturers bothered to mention Linux compatibility on their sites.

By contrast, during my recent purchases, the research was more a reflex than a necessity. Even now, only a handful of companies mention Linux compatibility on hardware boxes, mentioning only various releases of Windows and OS X, but the information is much readily available online.

For example, when I bought a custom-built computer for my workstation, I came home from a consultation with the store with a list of the manufacturers and models of the eight or nine pieces of hardware that I wanted to buy. Without exception, typing the models and "linux" into a search engine was enough for me to confirm compatibility.

Elapsed time? Ten minutes, and that included waiting for websites to display.

The rise of open standards
Today's support is not perfect. Buyers of hardware for linux still need to remember, for example, that a large number of printers from any manufacturer are listed in the Open Printing database  as "paperweights" -- meaning that they are completely incompatible with Linux. Similarly, although video and wireless support for Linux has improved steadily, you can still have trouble finding the necessary drivers. Most of all, recent CPU firmware can cause incompatibility. Increasingly, however, these are becoming minority cases.

Probably, the reason is not Linux's increasing popularity. The standard figures for Linux desktop use remain below two percent, so I suspect little motivation exists for manufacturers to support the operating system in its own right, except on the server side.

All the same, in recent years, computer hardware has increasingly moved towards open standards. Today, devices like WinPrinters and WinModems -- hardware devices that require a copy of Windows to work -- have become a footnote in history. True, the number of desktop users running OS X or other operating systems such as Linux is small compared to the number of Windows users, but if open standards can help a manufacturer gave a few more users, why not implement them, instead of spending money on several different standards? For the large manufacturers shipping millions of units, the savings must be in the millions of dollars.

A particularly influential shift to open standards is the rise over the last 10-15 years of the Universal Serial Bus (USB) . Since shortly after the turn of the millennium, USB has steadily replaced serial and parallel ports until today it has few rivals for peripheral hardware. The largest changes in USB technology have been the development of micro-USB with small plugs to fit phones and tablet, and the accompanying On the Go (OTG) devices and cables that give the same functionality as USB hubs, enabling USB and micro-USB cards to be used together. But these innovations are supplements to the basic USB 2.0 specification, so they do little to change the fact that USB has become the universal standard for external devices. If the device you want doesn't run on LInux, chances are you can find a USB device to replace it.

By luck or planning, Linux has supported the USB standard almost from the start. In 2009, Linux was actually the first operating system to support the USB 3.0 standard ( As a result, as the USB standard became widely used, Linux has gained compatibility with a wide spectrum of devices.

It is not quite right to say that any device with a USB connection is Linux compatible, but in cases from external hard drives and sound cards to printers, the situation can be almost that simple. The rest is up to the Linux kernel, which has improved hardware support in general to the point that the most likely incompatibilities are with the very latest hardware. Even then, you may only need to wait for the next kernel release to get the support you need.

The situation has improved so much that I could almost buy hardware according to its other specifications from a random store or website and trust that it could run Linux. The old dream of plug and play support has become so universal that we no longer use the term -- we simply expect to have it.

In fact, after so many years of caution, I am almost disappointed at the degree of Linus support. During my last round of purchases, I went so far as to worry whether results found in ten minutes could possibly be accurate. I even started to look up several results twice, just to be sure, until I realized that obsession rather than sense was dictating my actions. The old tradition may not be dead, but it is definitely dying.

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