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Why Linux enthusiasts are arguing over Purism's sleek, idealistic Librem laptops

Chris Hoffman | Aug. 10, 2015
Purism's idealistic Librem laptops are causing controversy in the free software community.

purism librem 13

Purism's idealistic Librem laptops are causing controversy in the free software community.

Purism promised to blend high-end, current hardware with completely free and open-source software in its laptops. CoreBoot developers, the LibreBoot project, and other people have argued Purism doesn't deliver on that. In fact, the combination may just not be possible.

Let's dig in.

The promises

Purism's philosophical contract sets a high bar. The first point states that "Purism will only use free/libre and open source software in the kernel, OS, and all software." "We promise that a Purism system and all its components will be free according to the strictest of guidelines set forth by the Free Software Foundation's Free Software Definition," it goes on.

That's a bold claim, especially considering the Free Software Foundation has extremely strict guidelines--so strict that the FSF even refuses to endorse any popular Linux distribution. And some of Purism's actions have looked a bit concerning; initial plans for the Purism Librem 15 promised an Nvidia GPU that wouldn't have been free software friendly at all. It was quickly revised to include Intel graphics instead.

The Purism Librem 15 shipped with a proprietary BIOS

In response to all this, a Coreboot developer wrote a post named " The truth about Purism."

"There was no way that the Intel CPU and chipset they wanted could run libre, given Intel's tight grip on the low level boot process," he argued.

And it's true. The Librem 15 eventually shipped with standard, proprietary AMI UEFI BIOS, although Intel Boot Guard was configured to allow unsigned firmware. But although it could run unsigned firmware, actually creating a free firmware is more difficult. Modern Intel CPUs and chipsets depend on a lot of closed-source code. The Intel Firmware Support Package (FSP), Intel Management Engine, CPU microcode updates, and even the video BIOS for the GPU are all closed-source binary blobs.

Purism responded, focusing on the wording "will be free" in its philosophical contract, stressing that it's not a commitment about the current product but a future goal to work towards. Purism argues that although the BIOS is currently not free according to the FSF standards, it's working towards that goal.

Revision 2 includes Coreboot, but...

Purism now says that "while the Librem 15 rev1 shipped with an AMI UEFI BIOS, we are working diligently to ship the Librem 15 rev2 with Coreboot+Intel FSP." So the completely closed-source BIOS is gone, replaced by Coreboot and the Intel Firmware Support Package, a closed-source binary blob required to actually initialize the hardware.

While this is arguably an improvement, much of the work will be done by the Intel FSP. As the Libreboot FAQ replies when asked if Libreboot will ever support Librem laptops: "Probably not." Going into more depth, Libreboot states "It is extremely unlikely that any post-2008 Intel hardware will ever be supported in libreboot."


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