The difference between software and hardware has long been somewhat blurry. Software is a vital part in any computer system, from supercomputersto smart phones, yet the software on a device can be largely independent from the hardware. For now, consumers have the freedom to choose the software they would like to power their devices. That might be about to change, though.
Almost all computers start up using a process which relies on the basic input/output system, or BIOS for short. The process involves a few steps. First, the processor must load a special program from non-erasable memory. This program describes how to load another program from a special place on the computer’s hard disk. The processor then loads the program from the hard disk, which describes how to continue loading the operating system.
The BIOS system generally works well. Users can install any operating system on their computer by simply altering the program stored on the hard drive. But because the BIOS system is so simple, the boot process can be the target of malicious programs. By modifying the contents of the boot program stored on the hard drive, viruses can load themselves before the operating starts, thereby gaining control of the operating system, while remaining invisible. This is a major security concern.
To try and resolve this issue, many vendors have agreed to phase out the BIOS system in favour of the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface firmware-to-software boot process, or UEFI for short. UEFI was developed years ago, and contains some impressive, though potentially restrictive improvements over its predecessor. One of the biggest changes is UEFI’s secure boot feature. With secure boot, the processor checks the program it loads from the hard drive before executing the second-stage loader. If the program is different from expected, the computer won’t start. This means that UEFI can be made to restrict which operating systems it will boot.
UEFI secure boot is a great improvement in the security of the boot process, but at great cost to user freedom. Secure boot makes it more difficult for users to install other operating systems and gives hardware vendors unreasonable control over what software runs on the device. Microsoft is one company that plans to take advantage of this by restricting the boot process on tablet computers they sell. Fortunately, they haven’t mentioned intentions to do this in the PC market.
Microsoft’s use of UEFI secure boot is an anti-competitive means of bundling their software with hardware. The company is familiar with piggybacking on near-monopolies. In 1998, Microsoft was sued and found in violation of antitrust laws for abusing their monopoly in the operating systems market to promote Internet Explorer.
Apple has had a similar experience in being over-restrictive with its software. In 2010, U.S. courts declared Jailbreaking iPhones legal, in spite of Apple’s objections. Jailbreaking refers to the process where a user’s privilege level is increased. This allows users to install applications through sources other than the App Store. The ruling effectively said that it was unreasonable for Apple to control which applications could and could not be installed on an iPhone.
When I buy a new computer or tablet, I want the freedom to run whatever software I like on my device. I’m not renting the device from anyone—it belongs to me, and as long as I’m not using it for anything illegal, what I do with it is entirely my decision. UEFI isn’t a bad idea; it’s a brilliant improvement in a long outdated system. However, there need to be checks in place to prevent unnecessary restrictions on the user. And, for now at least, regulation should keep hardware and software somewhat separate.