This set of articles does not seem like the sort of thing that ARM MPD would have initiated itself. Since both Imagination Technologies and NVidia did something similar months earlier, my feeling is that this was either initiated by Anand Lal Shimpi himself, or that this was requested by ARM marketing in response to the other articles.
Several interesting observations can be made from this though, especially from the answers (or sometimes, lack thereof) to the Q&A and google hangout sessions.
Hiding behind Linaro.First off, Mr Davies still does not see an open source driver as a worthwhile endeavour for ARM MPD, and this is a position that hasn't changed since i started the lima driver, when my former employer went and talked to ARM management. Rumour has it that most of ARMs engineers both in MPD and other departments would like this to be different, and that Mr Davies is mostly alone with his views, but that's currently just hearsay. He himself states that there are only business reasons against an open source driver for the mali.
To give some weight to this, Mr Davies stated that he contributed to the linux kernel, and i called him out on that one, as i couldn't find any mention of him in a kernel git tree. It seems however that his contributions are from during the Bitkeeper days, and that the author trail on those changes probably got lost. But, having contributed to a project at one point or another is, to me, not proof that one actively supports the idea of open source software, at best it proves that adding support to the kernel for a given ARM device or subsystem was simply necessary at one point.
Mr Davies also talked about how ARM is investing a lot in linaro, as a proof of ARMs support of open source software. Linaro is a consortium to further linux on ARM, so per definition ARM plays a very big role in it. But it is not ARM MPD that drives linaro, it is ARM itself. So this is not proof of ARM MPD actively supporting open source software. Mr Davies did not claim differently, but this distinction should be made very clear in this context.
Then, linaro can be described as an industry consortium. For non-founding members of a consortium, such a construction is often used to park some less useful people while gaining the priviledge to claim involvement as and when desired. The difference to other consortiums is that most of the members come from a deeply embedded background, where the word "open" never was spoken before, and, magically, simply by having joined linaro, those deeply embedded companies now feel like they succesfully ticked the "open source" box on their marketing checklist. Several of linaros members are still having severe difficulty conforming to the GPL, but they still proudly wear the linaro badge as proof of their open source...ness?
As a prominent member of the sunxi community, I am most familiar with Allwinner, a small chinese cheap SoC designer. At the start of the year, we were seeing some solid signs of Allwinner opening up to our community directly. In March however, Allwinner joined linaro and people were hopeful that this meant that a new era of openness had started for Allwinner. As usual, I was the only cynical voice and i warned that this could mean that Allwinner now wouldn't see the need to further engage with us. Ever since, we haven't been able to reach our contacts inside Allwinner anymore, and even our requests for compliance with the GPL get ignored.
Linaro membership does not absolve from limited open source involvement or downright license violation, but for many members, this is exactly how it is used. Linaro seems to be a get-out-of-jail-free card for several of its members. Linaro membership does not need to prove anything, linaro membership even seems to have the opposite effect in several cases.
ARM driving linaro is simply no proof that ARM MPD supports open source software.
The patent excuse.I am amazed that people still attempt to use this as an argument against open source graphics drivers.
Usually this is combined with the claim that open source drivers are exposing too much of the inner workings of the hardware. But this logic in itself states that the hardware is the problem, not the software. The hardware itself might or might not have patent issues, and it is just a matter of time before the owner of said breached patents will come a-knocking. At best, an open source driver might speed up the discovery of said issues, but the driver itself never is the cause, as the problems will have been there all along.
One would actually think that the Anandtech article about the midgard architecture would reveal more about the hardware, and trigger more litigation, than the lima driver could ever do, especially given how neatly packaged an in depth anandtech article is. Yet ARM MPD seemed to have had no issue with exposing this much information in their marketing blitz.
I also do not believe that patents are such a big issue. If graphics hardware patents were such big business, you would expect that an industry expert in graphics, especially one who is a dab hand at reverse engineering, would be contacted all the time to help expose potential patent issues. Yet i never have been contacted, and i know of no-one who ever has been.
Similarly. the first bits of lima code were made available 2.5 years ago, with bits trickling out slowly (much to my regret), and there are still several unknowns today. If lima played any role in patent disputes, you would again expect that i would be asked to support those looking to assert their patents. Again, nothing.
GPU Patents are just an excuse, nothing more.
When I was at SuSE, we freed ATI for AMD, and we never did hear that excuse. AMD wanted a solid open source strategy for ATI as ATI was not playing ball after the merger, and the bad publicity was hurting server (CPU) sales. Once the decision was made to go the open source route, patents suddenly were not an issue anymore. We did however have to deal with IP issues (or actually, AMD did - we made very sure we didn't get anything that wasn't supposed to be free), such as HDCP and media decoding, which ATI was not at liberty to make public. Given the very heated war that ATI and Nvidia fought at the time, and the huge amount of revenue in this market, you would think that ATI would be a very likely candidate for patent litigation, yet this never stood in the way of an open source driver.
There is another reason as to why patents are that popular an excuse. The words "troll" and "legal wrangling" are often sprinkled around as well so that images of shady deals being made by lawyers in smokey backrooms usually come to mind. Yet we never get to hear the details of patent cases, as even Mr Davies himself states that ARM is not making details available of ongoing cases. I also do not know of any public details on cases that have been closed already (not that i have actively looked - feel free to enlighten me). Patents are a perfect blanket excuse where proof apparently does not seem to be required.
We open source developers are very much aware of the damage that software patents do, and this makes the patent weapon perfect for deployment against those who support open source software. But there is a difference between software patents and the patent cases that ARM potentially has to deal with on the Mali. Yet we seem to have made patents our own kryptonite, and are way too easily lulled into backing off at the first mention of the word patent.
Patents are a poor excuse, as there is no direct relationship between an open source driver and the patent litigation around the hardware.
The Resources discussion.As a hardware vendor (or IP provider) doing a free software driver never is for free. A lot of developer time does need to be invested, and this is an ongoing commitment. So yes, a viable open source driver for the Mali will consume some amount of resources.
Mr Davies states that MPD would have to incur this cost on its own, as MPD seems to be a completely separate unit and that further investment can only come from profit made within this group. In light of that information, I must apologize for ever having treated ARM and ARM MPD as one and the same with respect to this topic. I will from now on make it very clear that it is ARM MPD, and ARM MPD alone, that doesn't want an open source mali driver.
I do believe that Mr Davies his cost versus gain calculations are too direct and do not allow for secondary effects.
I also believe that an ongoing refusal to support an open source strategy for Mali will reflect badly on the sale of ARM processors and other IP, especially with ARM now pushing into the server market and getting into intel territory. The actions of ARM MPD do affect ARM itself, and vice versa. Admittedly, not as much as some with those that more closely tie the in-house GPU with the rest of the system, but that's far from an absolute lack of shared dependency and responsibility.
The Mali binary problem.One person in the Q&A section asked why ARM isn't doing redistributable drivers like Nvidia does for the Tegra. Mr Davies answered that this was a good idea, and that linaro was doing something along those lines.
Today, ironically, I am the canonical source for mali-400 binaries. At the sunxi project, we got some binaries from the Cubietech people, built from code they received from allwinner, and the legal terms they were under did not prevent them from releasing the built binaries to the public. Around them (or at least, using the binaries as a separate git module) I built a small make based installation system which integrates with ARMs open source memory manager (UMP) and even included a quick GLES test from the lima tests. I stopped just short of debian packaging. The sunxi-mali repository, and the wiki tutorial that goes with it, now is used by many other projects (like for instance linux-rockchip) as their canonical source for (halfway usable) GPU support.
There are several severe problems with these binaries, which we have either fixed directly, have been working around or just have to live with. Direct fixes include adding missing library dependencies, and hollowing out a destructor function which made X complain. These are binary hacks. The xf86-video-fbturbo driver from Siarhei Siamashka works around the broken DRI2 buffer management, but it has to try to autodetect how to work around the issues, as it is differently broken on the different versions of the X11 binaries we have. Then there is the flaky coverage, as we only have binaries for a handful of kernel APIs, making it impossible to match them against all vendor provided SoC/device kernels. We also only have binaries for fbdev or X11, and sometimes for android, mostly for armhf, but not always... It's just one big mess, only slightly better than having nothing at all.
Much to our surprise, in oktober of last year, ARM MPD published a howto entry about setting up a working driver for mali midgard on the chromebook. It was a step in the right direction, but involved quite a bit off faff, and Connor Abbott (the brilliant teenager REing the mali shaders) had to go and pour things into a proper git repository so that it would be more immediately useful. Another bout of insane irony, as this laudable step in the right direction by ARM MPD ultimately left something to be desired.
ARM MPD is not like ATI, Nvidia, or even intel, qualcomm or broadcom. The Mali is built into many very different SoC families, and needs to be integrated with different display engines, 2D engines, media engines and memory/cache subsystems.
Even the distribution of drivers is different. From what i understand, mali drivers are handled as follows. The Mali licensees get the relevant and/or latest mali driver source code and access to some support from ARM MPD. The device makers, however, only rarely get their hands on source code themselves and usually have to make do with the binaries provided by the SoC vendor. Similarly, the device maker only rarely gets to deal with ARM MPD directly, and usually needs to deal with some proxy at the SoC vendor. This setup puts the responsibility of SoC integration squarely at the SoC vendor, and is well suited for the current mobile market: one image per device at release, and then almost no updates. But that market is changing with the likes of Cyanogenmod, and other markets are opening or are actively being opened by ARM, and those require a completely different mode of operation.
There is gap in Mali driver support that ARM MPDs model of driver delivery does not cater for today, and ARM MPD knows about this. But MPD is going to be fighting an upbill battle to try to correct this properly.
Binary solutions?So how can ARM MPD try to tackle this problem?
Would ARM MPD keep the burden of making suitable binaries available solely with SoC vendors or device makers? Not likely as that is a pretty shakey affair that's actively hurting the mali ecosystem. SoCs for the mobile market have incredibly short lives, and SoC and device software support is so fragmented that these vendors would be responsible for backporting bugfixes to a very wide array of kernels and SoC versions. On top of that, those vendors would only support a limited subset of windowing systems, possibly even only android as this is their primary market. Then, they would have to set up the support infrastructure to appropriately deal with user queries and bug reports. Only very few vendors will end up even attempting to do this, and none are doing so today. In the end, any improvement at this end will bring no advantages to the mali brand or ARM MPD. If this path is kept, we will not move on from the abysmal situation we are in today, and the Mali will remain to be seen as a very fragmented product.
ARM MPD has little other option but to try to tackle this itself, directly, and it should do so more proactively than by hiding behind linaro. Unfortunately, to make any real headway here, this means providing binaries for every kernel driver interface, and the SoC vendor changes to those interfaces, on top of other bits of SoC specific integration. But this also means dealing with user support directly, and these users will of course spend half their time asking questions which should be aimed at the SoC vendor. How is ARM MPD going to convince SoC vendors to participate here? Or is ARM MPD going to maintain most of the SoC integration work themselves? Surely it will not keep the burden only at linaro, wasting the resources of the rest of ARM and of linaro partners?
ARM MPD just is in a totally different position than the ATIs and Nvidias of this world. Providing binaries that will satisfy a sufficient part of the need is going to be a huge drain on resources. Sure, MPD is not spending the same amount of resources on optimizing for specific setups and specific games like ATI or Nvidia are doing, but they will instead have to spend it on the different SoCs and devices out there. And that's before we start talking about different windowing infrastructure, beyond surfaceflinger, fbdev or X11. Think wayland, mir, even directFB, or any other special requirements that people tend to have for their embedded hardware.
At best, ARM MPD itself will manage to support surfaceflinger, fbdev and X11 on just a handful of popular devices. But how will ARM MPD know beforehand which devices are going to be popular? How will ARM MPD keep on making sure that the binaries match the available vendor or device kernel trees? Would MPD take the insane route of maintaining their own kernel repositories with a suitable mali kernel driver for those few chosen devices, and backporting changes from the real vendor trees instead? No way.
Attempting to solve this very MPD specific problem with only binaries, to any degree of success, is going to be a huge drain on MPD resources, and in the end, people will still not be satisfied. The problem will remain.
The only fitting solution is an open source driver. Of course, the Samsungs of this world will not ship their flagship phones with just an open source GPU driver in the next few years. But an open source driver will fundamentally solve the issues people currently have with Mali, the issues which fuel both the demand for fitting distributable binaries and for an open source driver. Only an open source driver can be flexible and cost-effective enough to fill that gap. Only an open source driver can get silicon vendors, device makers, solution creators and users chipping in, satisfying their own, very varied, needs.
Change is coming.The ARM world is rapidly changing. Hardware review sites, which used to only review PC hardware, are more and more taking notice of what is happening in the mobile space. Companies that are still mostly stuck in embedded thinking are having to more and more act like PC hardware makers. The lack of sufficiently broad driver support is becoming a real issue, and one that cannot be solved easily or cheaply with a quick binary fix, especially for those who sell no silicon of their own.
The Mali marketing show on Anandtech tells us that things are looking up. The market is forcing ARM MPD to be more open, and MPD has to either sink or swim. The next step was demonstrated by yours truly and some other very enterprising individuals, and now both Nvidia and Broadcom are going all the way. It is just a matter of time before ARM MPD has to follow, as they need this more than their more progressive competitors.
To finish off, at the end of the Q&A session, someone asked: "Would free drivers gives greater value to the shareholders of ARM?". After a quick braindump, i concluded "Does ARMs lack of free drivers hurt shareholder value?" But we really should be stating "To what extent does ARMs lack of free drivers hurt shareholder value?".