There is a lot of speculation out there that some Microsoft security features would prevent Linux and presumably Linux derivatives such as Google Chrome OS and Ubuntu from running on computers using Windows 8.
The controversy is centered on secure boot, a proposed feature in the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface or UEFI. Secure boot is designed to protect machines against a particularly nasty form of hacking called a boot loader attack. A boot loader attacker tries to take over a computer before the operating system starts. The only way another operating system could start up on a Windows 8 system would be with a special key from Microsoft. This would be installed on all new PCs built for Windows 8.
UEFI is the new way that computers will boot in the future. It will replace an older system called BIOS which is considered very vulnerable to boot loading and other advanced forms of hacking. UEFI will be built right into the chips and have a secure boot feature enabled when the machine is sold.
Matthew Garrett, a Linux developer over at Red Hat has charged that this security feature is an effort to stop Microsoft users from using other operating systems. That sounds like something that Microsoft would do with the looming threat of competition from Google’s Chrome OS.
Garrett has alleged that any software in a machine built for Windows 8 with UEFI could have to be authenticated by Microsoft before running. In plain English that means Microsoft could theoretically shut out any software it has not received a license fee on. It is not clear whether there is any truth to this claim or not. He also noted that UEFI could be incompatible with some graphics cards.
Microsoft’s response to this has been to say that it will give manufacturers the option to disable secure boot or allow PC purchasers the ability disable it. That would put the responsibility in the hands of the manufacturers who may not want it.
It must be noted that Windows 8 is a work in process so this could simply be a proposal. Microsoft might be leaking information about the feature to see what the reaction to it is. If it seems negative and could threaten sales there’s a good chance Microsoft will pull the plug on secure boot before Windows 8 goes live.
Secure boot could also be used to keep people from installing other operating systems on computers. For example, employers could use it to keep workers from adding Linux or Google Chrome OS to the company computer. It could be used to keep people from adding an extra operating system to public computers.
With operating systems that can be loaded from disks and flash drives that’s a real concern these days. So there are some legitimate uses for this secure boot feature particularly with commercial computers.
This controversy will ultimately be resolved by customers, do they want the added layer of security or the freedom to run dual operating systems. Business customers in particular may want to run more than one operating system to save money by using older versions of software or proprietary software.