Debian Proposes Better Discovery of non-free Firmware Images

Debian team announced three proposals to distribute the “non-free” firmware via the official ISO images.

Debian Logo
Debian Logo

Free and non-free Debian installation images – current situation

Debian Linux provides two major installer images based on the firmware type. The “free” images contain the “open-source” drivers and packages, whereas the “non-free” images are for proprietary firmware packages.

If you tried downloading the “non-free” version from the official website, you might have spent some time locating the installer images.

Because the “non-free” images are kind of “hidden” and buried under several directory structures in the official Debian download server.

However, the “free” version is readily available from the main download page.

Current Debian download page shows no link to non-free images
The current Debian download page shows no link to non-free images

For example, here is a comparison of the “free” and “non-free” paths of Debian (which I explained in detail in the Debian installation guide):

"non-free" firmware image path buried under several directories
https://cdimage.debian.org/cdimage/unofficial/non-free/cd-including-firmware/current/amd64/iso-dvd/
"free" download path (easy to navigate)
https://cdimage.debian.org/cdimage/release/current/amd64/iso-dvd/

As you can see, a user needs to browse six additional directories to find out the non-free version ISO image.

This is a real problem for new users.

Because new folks just want to download an image which works out of the box with Wi-Fi, printers, Bluetooth etc. And they end up downloading the “free” version without proprietary packages and end up having a bad user experience.

Also, the wording “free” is a little confusing. One might think the other version is a “paid” version – the opposite of “free”.

Now, Debian wants to change this confusing user experience for good.

Three Proposals

In the official mailing list, three possible options are outlined by three contributors to handle the Debian non-free firmware situation in the ISO images.

I have highlighted the key differences in these three proposals for easy reading.

Option A

We will include non-free firmware packages from the “non-free-firmware” section of the Debian archive on our official media (installer images and live images). The included firmware binaries will normally be enabled by default where the system determines that they are required, but where possible we will include ways for users to disable this at boot (boot menu option, kernel command line etc.).

When the installer/live system is running we will provide information to the user about what firmware has been loaded (both free and non-free), and we will also store that information on the target system such that users will be able to find it later. The target system will also be configured to use the non-free-firmware component by default in the apt sources.list file. Our users should receive security updates and important fixes to firmware binaries just like any other installed software.

We will publish these images as official Debian media, replacing the current media sets that do not include non-free firmware packages.

Steve McIntyre

Option B

We will include non-free firmware packages from the “non-free-firmware” section of the Debian archive on our official media (installer images and live images). The included firmware binaries will normally be enabled by default where the system determines that they are required, but where possible we will include ways for users to disable this at boot (boot menu option, kernel command line etc.).

When the installer/live system is running we will provide information to the user about what firmware has been loaded (both free and non-free), and we will also store that information on the target system such that users will be able to find it later. The target system will also be configured to use the non-free-firmware component by default in the apt sources.list file. Our users should receive security updates and important fixes to firmware binaries just like any other installed software.

While we will publish these images as official Debian media, they will not replace the current media sets that do not include non-free firmware packages, but offered alongside. Images that do include non-free firmware will be presented more prominently, so that newcomers will find them more easily; fully-free images will not be hidden away; they will be linked from the same project pages, but with less visual priority.

Gunnar Wolf

Option C

The Debian project is permitted to make distribution media (installer images and live images) containing packages from the non-free section of the Debian archive available for download alongside with the free media in a way that the user is informed before downloading which media are the free ones.

Bart Martens

As you can see, all three options aim for a better user experience while downloading the Debian non-free ISO images.

No matter the option wins; eventually, it will benefit the end user, and folks won’t get confused between “free” and “non-free”.

The final decision is expected after September 3, 2022, since it is in the discussion phase. If you want to participate, you can join the Debian Vote mailing list and voice your opinions.

Finally, a much-needed step, which I feel, should have been done long back.


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