John Chamberlain
Developer Diary
 Developer Diary · You Heard It Here First · Sunday 29 February 2004
PC BIOS, The Final Chapter
Intel and Microsoft are collaborating to eliminate the PC BIOS in the most scary way imaginable.

Behind the scenes of computer architecture development a huge question has loomed for years: what are we going to do about the PC BIOS? Since its very inception the BIOS that boots every PC has been recognized as an ad hoc, ill-designed, problematic part of the platform. It's the crazy aunt in the PC's attic. It's made Phoenix a billion-dollar company for producing what is arguably the worst software in general use. You have used this software if you have pressed F12, escape (or whatever) to get into "setup" during a PC boot. The PC BIOS has been targeted for termination ever since IBM first included it, yet it lives on to torture and bemuse PC users and developers endlessly. What will be it's end? Microsoft and Intel are brewing up a scary answer to this question.

Microsoft has been trying to get the BIOS monkey off its back for years. In 1994 "Plug and Play" was originally designed to do away with the hated BIOS. Developers at the Redmond campus started wearing T-shirts reading "We don't need no stinkin' BIOS". It didn't work. The BIOS was too ingrained into the system. Plug and Play became a BIOS add-on instead of a replacement. Microsoft stewed for ten more years.

In that time other companies like Apple have switched over to Sun's solution which is a public IEEE standard, called Open Firmware. My article from yesterday notes that this standard uses the versatile Forth language to enable device drivers to interact with the computer's support chips in an organized way. Open Firmware has been so successful that it is basically the de facto standard for hardware booting. It is used in Sun hardware, all Macs and in the ARM architecture, which is used by the entire electronics industry (cars, phones, dedicated storage, TVs, planes, you name it). The logical thing would be for PC vendors to switch to Open Firmware like the rest of the world and we would all be in boot heaven. Nice try :-)

Rather than adopt the technology used by "competitors", ie the rest of the world, Intel and Microsoft have formed an alternative plan that is so supremely evil it trumps all other evil plans. Catbert is purring uncontrollably in Redmond. Under this plan PCs will be controlled top to bottom by an encryption system that will allow the operating system (ie Microsoft Windows) to dictate the user's ability to do anything with their computer and the devices attached to it. To do this requires a huge architectural change to PCs that goes way beyond just booting. To do the boot process Intel has developed EFI. The somewhat mysterious system that will use EFI as its pawn in the game of user control is called the Intel Platform Innovation Framework for the Extensible Firmware Interface, dubbed by the sinister nickname "The Framework". Intel expects the first consumer PCs with The Framework to be delivered the fall of this year.

To make the new generation of PC to use The Framework requires both a chipset that implements it and an operating system that can use it. One reason for the delay of the Longhorn release of Windows is the complexity of rewriting the entire operating system to be able to integrate these hardware changes.

Intel is working hard to release a chipset that uses The Framework. This project is called "Grantsdale". It is the key in making The Framework a reality. If Intel succeeds in releasing Grantsdale by the fall of 2004 then that will enable the creation of the first controlled PCs. The key controlling component is called the "Trusted Platform Module" (TPM). PCs with The Framework and a TPM will not even boot without authorization. More importantly the operating system will be able to enforce software and software-standard restrictions on a user by using the same cryptographic abilities in the TPM. In other words a program could prevent a copy of itself from running unless the right authentication existed. Also, a hardware device could refuse to duplicate a CD unless the right authentication existed.

With this hardware basis in place Microsoft will be in an unchallengable position to dictate the terms under which controlled content creation takes place on PCs and be able to enforce copyright restrictions on individual users. Every PC will take on an individualized, authenticated identity that can be tracked through registration processes. By forcing registration software vendors will be able to find out every PC on which their software is running and more or less be able to associate those PCs with individual people who use them. In the past PC identification was an ad hoc activity dependent on transient elements like mac addresses. With The Framework in place all that will change. The TPM specification states over and over again to the effect of, "the module must not compromise the privacy of the user", but the design is such that that is exactly what it will allow the system to do in an organized and directed way.

Currently the general public has had little view of these plans for their future which Intel and Microsoft have been hard at work upon, but later this year the scary new world which these companies are creating will be born.

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