Debian Decided to Include Non-Free Firmware in the Installer

Debian Decided to Include Non-Free Firmware in the Installer

In a vote held over the past two weeks, Debian’s developers decided to include non-free firmware by default in the Debian installer.

Debian has always aimed to adhere to the spirit of FOSS as closely as possible. As a result, its developers are known for their careful approach to the software included in the distribution.

However, times are changing. This necessitates either evolving and adapting to new realities or stubbornly refusing to accept them, putting your future at risk. Fortunately, the Debian developers went with the first option.

Non-Free Firmware by Default in the Debian Installer

As you probably know, non-free firmware is not currently loaded by default on Debian systems. This means that the WiFi adapter, for example, will almost certainly not function.

As a result, this could discourage any novice Linux user from leaving Debian in favor of another distribution. Something the Debian developers had accepted in the interest of carefully adhering to FOSS principles.

But, as previously stated, times are changing. And to meet modern user expectations, the Debian Project has chosen to change its approach to the software that is installed by default by the installer.

Unlike many largely corporate-owned Linux distributions, where choices are taken autocratically, and everyone else is forced to accept a fait accompli, Debian makes decisions in the most democratic way possible – through elections and voting.

For that purpose, a vote among Debian developers was planned between September 18th and October 1st on whether to permit the inclusion of non-free software in the installer. There were six alternatives to choose from.

  1. Only one installer, including non-free firmware
  2. Recommend installer containing non-free firmware
  3. Allow presenting non-free installers alongside the free one
  4. Installer with non-free software is not part of Debian
  5. Change SC for non-free firmware in installer, one installer
  6. Change SC for non-free firmware in installer, keep both installers

The voting results, which were announced yesterday, October 2nd, show that option 5 (Change SC for non-free firmware in installer, one installer) received the most votes.

Graphical presentation of the votes

Here you will find the graphical presentation of the vote.

What Happens from Here On

I want to stress that this is, in my opinion, one of the most significant changes to the Debian Project in recent years. A change that affects the distribution’s vision and philosophy.

First, the Debian Social Contract (SC), a document that frames the moral agenda of the Debian Project, is replaced with a new version that is identical to the existing version in every way except for the addition of the following statement at the end of point 5:

The Debian official media may include firmware that is otherwise not part of the Debian system to enable use of Debian with hardware that requires such firmware.

So, in general, if the Debian installer finds that you have hardware that needs proprietary firmware, it will load it automatically. But, just as importantly, Debian users will receive security updates and important firmware patches, just like any other installed software.

Currently, there is no information on when devs will update the official Debian ISO installation images to include the new non-free firmware in the default Debian installer, but it is expected shortly.

Conclusion

I think including non-free firmware in the default Debian installer is a step in the right direction. But, of course, there will always be purists who will find this change unacceptable in the context of one of the oldest and most closely related to FOSS Linux distributions.

On the other hand, this change will make Debian feel more “whole” out of the box. And hopefully, it will help promote Debian to an even wider audience rather than discourage people as it currently does due to the lack of WiFi (or other hardware) support in its official ISO images.

Bobby Borisov
Bobby Borisov

Bobby is a Linux professional with over 20 years of experience. With a strong focus on Linux and open-source software, Bobby has worked as a Linux System Administrator, Software Developer, and DevOps Engineer for small and large multinational companies.

2 Comments

  1. Dear sir,

    You wrote:
    > including non-free firmware in the default Debian installer is a step in the right direction

    I do not consider myself to be a purist. I think that including non-free firmware in the default Debian installer may not be the best decision; it certainly does *not* strike to me as an ideal decision or the most desirable decision to make. I think a better decision and solution was for Debian community and Debian developers to recommend to buy new desktop (or laptop) computer from companies that ensure that all software (including BIOS) would be Free (as in speech) and Open-source. There are companies that sell new computers (desktop or laptop) that are using exclusively free and open-source softwares. Or even for the Debian organization to start itself a company that would build (and sell) computers (desktop or laptop) that would be using 100% FOSS.

    As for old (and not new) desktop (or laptop or tablet) computers that may require non-free firmwares, I admit that I do not have an easy-to-implement and suitable (or FOSS) solution.

    Gérard

  2. I have used the Debian edition with non-free software with no problems and it worked great.
    debian.org/images/unofficial/non-free/images-including-firmware/current-live/amd64/iso-hybrid/

    Face it most computers are made for Window. That will continue.

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