BIOS on the way out

SAN FRANCISCO – A coalition of some of the largest hardware and software companies in the world will launch a new specification by the end of this year to rid the industry of the legacy Basic Input-Output System that resides in PCs everywhere.

An executive told Intel’s Developer Forum this week that the formation last month of a forum to manage the Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI) could mean an end to the BIOS, which was introduced by IBM with its first PC in 1981.

Mike Richmond, manager of platform software infrastructure in Intel’s software and solutions group, said EFI could gain major headway once support for it comes in Microsoft’s next generation of Windows, Vista. Intel’s EFI Framework, code-named Tanio, has been the company’s recommended implementation, but the United EFI Forum will see the spec evolve under the stewardship of Microsoft, Dell, IBM and even its chief rival, AMD.

“Some of you are old enough to remember when (BIOS) first came out,” Richmond told IDF attendees during a session on the topic. “It’s one of the oldest legacy architectural elements in a PC. And it’s become a barrier to innovation.”

Richmond said BIOS has been patched and updated but doesn’t do a great job of handling video, and is becoming increasingly harder to administrate in complex server environments. BIOS operates in the pre-boot environment in a PC before an OS loads, controlling the way data moves between the OS and the hard drive, among other devices and checking to make sure they are operational. EFI would work between the OS and a computer’s firmware, offering boot and platform information in a series of tables.

Though a number of firmware vendors, including Insyde and AMI, had offered products based on Intel’s EFI Framework, the major holdout was Milpitas, Calif.-based Phoenix Technologies, which enjoys a 70 per cent market share in the BIOS market. According to John MacInnis, Phoenix’s senior product manager, the United EFI Forum will lead to major advancements in the specification.

“This is the right way to do it,” he said, adding that Phoenix, which was among the exhibitors at this year’s IDF, shared Intel’s vision but wanted more input on the way the transition from BIOS was handled.

“You had all these BIOS vendors and firmware vendors doing their own proprietary things,” he said. “What they were doing, what we were doing was great, but it wouldn’t be supported by everybody. That’s created a bottleneck.”

Richmond said vendors don’t tend to change the BIOS in a PC until new chipsets become available, which means that EFI has tended to develop during the same cycles that desktops and servers are refreshed in the enterprise.

“It’s a big stone that’s starting to roll downhill,” he said.

Phoenix’s chief technical architect, Tim Lewis, was scheduled to provide an update on EFI to firmware engineers during a session at IDF as it wrapped up on Thursday.

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