In a blog post, Richard Hughes, who works for Red Hat (RHT) and contributes to the GNOME project, writes that Red Hat and Dell have been collaborating on a system that will allow users of Dell hardware to update firmware from Linux. If that doesn't seem significant to you, it's probably because you either do not use Linux or have not spent enough of your life geeking out to know what firmware is.
Here's an explanation for the uninitiated: Firmware is software code that is installed on low-level components of computers. It doesn't live on your hard drive but instead usually exists on solid-state memory that is hard to access. You sometimes have to update it to fix bugs that affect how your computer operates or provide compatibility with newer types of devices.
But firmware upgrades are hard to do. That's because the firmware powers essential components like your motherboard, without which the computer could not run, making it tricky to update it while the computer is running in normal mode. Doing so would corrupt the firmware code on which your computer is currently relying to work.
For a long time, most major hardware companies have offered tools that make it possible to update firmware from Windows by relying on some tricks that allow the firmware to change without crashing the system. But none of these tools has been available for Linux. Instead, Linux users have had to rely on the archaic method of booting to rescue partitions or special CDs to update firmware.
The new support for firmware updates from Dell will change this. Now, Linux users can upgrade firmware from the comfort of their production desktop environments.
For now, the big catch is that this only works on Dell's forthcoming Edge Gateway computer. Other Dell models don't support it. But Hughes reports having "been told that Dell are considering expanding out" the support so it works with other types of hardware.
To be sure, this news is not going to revolutionize the lives of many people directly. It affects only the subset of Linux users who have Dell hardware. And it's not as if firmware updates are a frequent occurrence anyway. I've only ever done a handful in my life, and I am relatively geeky. People who have made better life decisions than I probably worry even less about keeping their firmware up to date.
That said, up-to-date firmware is more important in the enterprise, where it can affect compliance and privacy policies. By making it easier for computers running Linux to perform firmware updates, Dell is putting pressure on other hardware vendors to take Linux environments more seriously, too, especially in the enterprise market. And it is giving open source fans another talking point when they demand platforms that are more user-friendly.