In a recent talk at the Aalto Center for Entrepreneurship (ACE) in Espoo, Finland, Linux Torvalds, the creator of the Linux kernel, criticized the nVidia for failing to release specifications in order for the free/open source software developers to develop drivers for their chips. Torvalds complained:
NVIDIA has been one of the worse trouble spot we’ve had with hardware manufacturers. And that is really sad because NVIDIA tries to sell chips, a lot of chips into the Android market. And NVIDIA has been the single worst company we’ve ever dealt with. So NVIDIA f—k you!
Although it may appear like Linus is just being infantile in his behavior, there is a method to this madness. Watching the video of the event, it is clear that Linus planned his answer very carefully and he wasn’t just giving nVidia the bird in a moment of pique. Linus needs to make a dramatic gesture to alert all the Linux users that they should avoid nVidia. This sort of gesture makes headlines, and it wakes people up. As a Linux user, I will remember this the next time I go buy a computer. If Linus had very politely said “please avoid nVidia”, it never would have made the news and I never would have read about it. Now that the issue has gotten my attention, I know that I will stop buying nVidia products and I bet there are thousands just like me.
The second important point is that the world of free/libre/open source software is brutally honest and has a very strong tradition of free speech. It is world were people are passionate and opinionated and don’t mince words, because they care deeply about the technology and programming. This isn’t just a way to make money or a stepping stone in their career to them–this is their avocation and their passion in life. Their blunt speech is the complete opposite of corporate-speak and PR spin. Once you become accustomed to the candor of this world, you find it to be much more refreshing and honest.
The final point to consider is that suddenly nVidia has a PR disaster to deal with and it forces nVidia’s management to react. It gets their attention. Although it may harden attitudes against Linux in nVidia, but at this point, what does the Linux community have to loose? They have tried to work with nVidia for years only to be rebuffed at every turn, so asking politely is certainly a waste of time. Maybe being a jerk might work. Who knows.
The crazy thing is that nVidia should be very happy to support its Linux customers, since it likes to promotes CUDA which should appeal to the types of customers who use Linux to do lots of vector and parallel computations. It costs nVidia almost nothing to release its programming specs, so the Linux community can develop their own drivers and those specs has almost no value as far as protecting its intellectual property. I worked as a hardware programmer on a project where I had to interact with microcontrollers. Knowing how to interact with a particular microcontroller told me very little about how to design that microcontroller myself. Frankly, knowing nVidia’s programming specs won’t help AMD and Intel very much and they can figure it out whether nVidia releases it as public information or not. The fact that both AMD and Intel publish the programming specs for their graphics processors tells you there is very little competitive advantage to be gained by reading the specs. nVidia has no valid economic reason to not release its programming specs, as far as I can tell.