Is ndiswrapper Dead?
For a long time, ndiswrapper, which uses Windows wireless drivers to make wireless cards work on Linux, was a vitally important component of many Ubuntu systems. In many cases, it was the only way for users to access wireless Internet. Unfortunately, the ndiswrapper project’s pulse has seemed to go from faint to non-existent over the last several months.
In September, some important parts of its website went down–including the immensely valuable database of user-supplied testimonies on the performance of various wireless cards under ndiswrapper (for a mirror of this database, check here)–and have yet to be resurrected. Moreover, the project, which used to push out version upgrades with great regularity, hasn’t had a stable release in over half a year, and its subversion code doesn’t seem to have been touched in a couple of months. The current release doesn’t even compile on the 2.6.27 kernel, used by Ubuntu 8.10, without the application of a third-party patch.
Given all this, I think it’s fair to conclude that ndiswrapper is about to follow Gentoo down the blue tunnel into the Afterlife.
Fortunately, most users don’t have to care. Over the last couple of years, the likelihood that a given wireless card will ‘just work’ on Ubuntu has increased dramatically, as more and more wireless drivers are merged into the kernel, thanks to the Linux wireless project. And even if a device isn’t not up and running out-of-the-box, a little googling is usually sufficient to remedy the problem.
Nonetheless, certain cards still require ndiswrapper to work with Linux. Some devices lack Linux drivers entirely–Atheros-based USB dongles are an example–and thus rely on ndiswrapper to function. In other cases, the native drivers aren’t quite up to par, and ndiswrapper is a more reliable solution.
I thus worry what will become of those who aren’t fortunate enough to own chipsets with native support. Clearly, telling users that wireless isn’t for them because they have the bad luck of owning an unsupported device is unacceptable.
For the time being, of course, ndiswrapper continues to support a majority of cards. But as Windows wireless drivers are rewritten and the Linux kernel is changed, it’s only a matter of time before ndiswrapper no longer works at all, with no one left to maintain it.
Ideally, every wireless card in the world will have native Linux support by then. But for that to happen, Canonical and other organizations that can leverage real weight need to work hard with hardware vendors to ensure that more device drivers can be written for Linux.
Otherwise, wireless support is bound once again to become the great thorn in desktop Linux’s side that it was for too many years.