State of Wireless in Linux Distros

Over the past few days I have downloaded a few different Linux Live CDs.  If you don’t know what a Live CD is, it is a bootable CD that boots into a completely working Linux desktop, allowing the user to test the Linux distribution without having to install anything to a hard drive.  It’s a nice way to try distributions without formatting or installing anything.

The reason I downloaded these Live CDs is so I could test other Linux distributions (distros) and check to see if they would work with my wireless device, since all the computers in my house run on the wireless network.  I can’t install a Linux distribution unless it allows my wireless device to work “out of the box” (without needing to download additional drivers).

Sadly, I have to report that attempting to install Debian’s latest stable version from a DVD or a Live CD, neither had my wireless USB adapter working.  Same goes for the Fedora’s latest (released just this month).  Also sad, my wireless USB adapter uses a chipset who has released driver source code specifically for Linux, so it not working on two major Linux distributions is disheartening.  Ubuntu seems to be the only major distribution that supports my wireless adapter from the get go.

There in lies the problem.  Wireless is now an important part of computing.  While my main concern is my desktop, none of the CDs I tried had my wireless working without major hoops on my work provided laptop either (Dell Latitude D830).  And wireless is pretty much standard on laptops these days.  Wireless has to work and it has to be painless.  Fedora had my wireless network working, but it wouldn’t find my wireless G compatible access point for some reason.  Even typing in the SSID (network ID) manually didn’t help get it to work.  The Debian Live CD didn’t even activate the wireless at all, and the install DVD said I needed to install firmware off of a removable drive, but it didn’t tell me where I could download said firmware.

Just to note, yes, I can do a google search to find the firmware.  And yes, I could install the distribution and then download, compile, and install the wireless device drivers manually.  I’m quite capable, but that’s not the point.  The point is that, since driver source code is available from the chipset manufacturer, it should be included already.  I understand something not working because of lack of support from the manufacturer, but when they are already making the them available in a Linux friendly fashion, why do I need to download, compile, and install?  Shouldn’t the distro handle that?  What if a non-geek has the same hardware I do, would you expect them to know how to compile?  Even if you do expect them to, they won’t do it.  They’ll simply move on.

Again, wireless needs to work out of the box, you can’t expect non-geeks to go and download wireless device firmware especially if you don’t tell them where to go online to find it.  I understand that the main reason this is still an issue is because manufacturers are not opening up their drivers or releasing drivers that can be used in Linux.  We’re in the year 2009, can’t we just please have the drivers so we can run the operating system we want to run?  I guess that’s a taller order than we thought.

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