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In the Free Software Foundation's May 2013 review of single board computers, the Raspberry Pi was found to have fatal flaws for use in a free (libre) software environment:

The Raspberry Pi requires nonfree software to start up. It can't reach the point of executing free software unless this nonfree program is part of the installed system software. ... This nonfree startup program affects both models of the Raspberry Pi.

Is the new Raspberry Pi Zero free of the requirement to use nonfree (proprietary) software?

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    I didn't even know the RPi required non-libre software to boot... Thanks! – Morgan Courbet Nov 26 '15 at 13:31
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    Interestingly, according to your link, there are no SBCs that are do not have major or fatal flaws. – user19474 Nov 26 '15 at 23:14
  • @user19474, yes, the SBC market is disappointing on this front (as is the PC market as well, notwithstanding brilliant exceptions like Novena). The Pi is as bad as it gets, though; at least many other boards are usable in all crucial respects without requiring non-free software and have workarounds available to enable missing functionality using free software. I hope the FSF will review the Acme boards at some point; they seem promising. And of course I hope RPi will eventually improve. – sampablokuper Nov 26 '15 at 23:49
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No. The Pi Zero uses the BCM2835 system-on-a-chip, which combines a CPU and a VideoCore 4 GPU -- the same basic SoC as on the Pi A/B/+ models although with a faster clock speed (which does not necessarily mean it was manufactured any differently1).

My understanding is that the GPU bootstraps the CPU and loads a kernel into it. Although the kernel can be anything, including linux, which in its vanilla form meets the FSF's standards for free/libre open source software, the firmware required for the GPU is from closed source.

I'm pretty sure the non-vanilla Raspberry Pi kernel, which presumably runs on the Zero, does qualify as FOSS. The bits added for the BCM2708 (of which the 2835 is an implementation) are not proprietary. In other words, the fact that this has not been merged into the vanilla kernel is not a licensing issue.

So, this is the same in this regard as previous Pi's and nearly all general purpose computers currently on the market, which use proprietary firmware for the BIOS or (U)EFI. Looking at the article you linked, the issue with other single board computers seems to most often be firmware for peripheral components (wifi, VPU/GPU, etc).


1. I'd guess it was not and this in part reflects much successful overclocking on the pi -- congratulations gang!

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    The vibe I get from the Foundation is that is not a priority for them; in fact I'm not sure they care much about the issue (I do, btw). However, as a product it would never have gotten as far as it has without the availability and adaptability of a FOSS OS like Debian. So I see it as sort of a gateway drug, where the gateway is, hopefully, mostly into a libre ideology... – goldilocks Nov 26 '15 at 19:37
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    @sampablokuper: So you won't use a Dell computer or HP or Acer or Sony or Hitachi? They all use non-free BIOS. The "software" mentioned is basically the BIOS. But embedded devices don't have PC-style BIOSes (personally I don't think PCs should have BIOSes either) they have bootloaders instead. A bootloader is just a more complete BIOS than BIOSes. – slebetman Nov 27 '15 at 4:15
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    @slebetman the videocore firmware is far more than just a BIOS. It is a full operating system running on a different CPU, with priority access to the MMU and ability to preempt the ARM core. You can't even disassemble the firmware to see what it does because even the instruction set is proprietary. PCs have none of these "features", the closest they have is Intel AMT which can be disabled. A closer analogy would be the firmware in hard drives. – Alistair Buxton Nov 27 '15 at 5:51
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    @slebetman, no, I'm not planning to buy any of those. I'd rather use something that can run Libreboot/Coreboot. Alistair Buxton, AMT is a legitimate concern. This comment thread is increasingly off-topic, though. Let's say no more about other systems, and keep remaining comments (if any) focused on whether the Pi Zero is usable with fully free software. With any luck the Pi Foundation will eventually release the relevant code under a free license. Here's hoping! – sampablokuper Nov 27 '15 at 15:52
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    @sampablokuper You may be interested in rpi-open-firmware. It works somewhat (it can boot Linux minimally) but does not yet support HDMI, audio, DPI, DSI, etc. – Toothbrush Mar 12 '17 at 21:14

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