Open Source

The blame game: Lenovo locked Linux out of certain Microsoft's Signature hardware

With the recent revelation that Linux has been locked out of Signature Series hardware, Jack Wallen dons his conspiracy theorist hat and points the finger of blame directly at one manufacturer: Lenovo.

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Image: CNET/CBS Interactive

Remember that Microsoft love fest that's been going on over the last year? It ends with Lenovo. Lenovo is one of the largest desktop hardware manufacturers in the world (from phones to tablets to desktops) and it seems they've decided the Microsoft Signature means one thing and one thing only.

Windows.

Here's what's going on. As first reported by Reddit user BaronHK, there have been a few pieces of hardware in the Yoga line (Yoga 900 ISK2, Yoga 900S, and Yoga 710S) which lock the SSD drive into a proprietary RAID mode. With that mode in place, nothing can be installed (not even Windows), without first adding specialty drivers to the installation media (drivers that are only available for Windows). Lenovo has gone so far as to remove AHCI mode from the BIOS and wrote a special bit of code that auto-resets itself to RAID mode if you try to toggle AHCI mode with an EFI variable from EFIshell. The combination of those three items make it very clear that Lenovo wanted to make sure that this line of devices was only capable of running one platform: Windows 10.

This had actually been going on for months and wasn't discovered until BaronHK posted a review of the product on the Best Buy site. He then says:

For the last 11 months, they were silent on why this machine was configured this way. The only reason we know why now is because Lenovo answered my Best Buy review by stating it is locked due to the agreement they signed with Microsoft for the Signature Edition PC program, so it's very likely that all Ultrabooks in the Microsoft Store, and some outside the MS Store (such as at Best Buy) will eventually be configured so that Linux can't be installed, even if there are some now where you can install Linux.

Okay, that's all fine and good, and that's Lenovo's choice — although it's only legal in America, where it's protected by the DMCA. (In other countries this would go against anti-monopoly laws.) But this is 2016 and platform is no longer nearly as relevant as service. To that end, it simply doesn't make sense.

NOTE: One particular Reddit user, bownairo did manage a BIOS flashing hack to get around this issue, but it's not something the average user (or average IT pro, for that matter) would want to attempt.

But what really should bring out the ire in the public (and the media) is that Lenovo is going out of their way to remove any and all references/reviews to this issue (when they have the control to do so). They've not only deleted posts on their own forum, they've locked posts about the BIOS to prevent users from commenting.

Time for damage control.

SEE: Lenovo denies deliberately blocking Linux on Windows 10 PCs

Superfish

Remember that? One singular word to make most Lenovo staffers shudder with fear. If you weren't in the know, Superfish was a man-in-the-middle adware, preinstalled by Lenovo, that hijacked encrypted web sessions. This issue was made worse when the encryption key used for Superfish was decrypted, so that anyone could launch man-in-the-middle HTTPS attacks that wouldn't be detected by any machine with the Superfish certificate installed.

That's two serious strikes against Lenovo on this front.

What's even more concerning about this issue is that Lenovo hardware is more aggressive against the installation of Linux than is the Microsoft Surface (case in point, you can install Linux on the Surface Pro 3). So why would Lenovo go to all the trouble of locking out Linux on these specific devices?

Conspiracy can certainly be a dastardly companion. Consider yourself duly warned for this next bit.

Could Lenovo be planning a second go 'round with the likes of Spearfish, and want to ensure that there is no way to bypass such machinations with these devices? I know it's a bit of a stretch, but the only other conclusion I could draw from this instance would be a money grab — something neither company needs. On top of that, Microsoft is currently locked in a deep embrace with Linux and, point in fact, needs Linux to continue pushing the romance forward on so many fronts. So the idea that Microsoft would have insisted Linux be locked out simply doesn't compute.

Or does it?

We all know that Microsoft loves Linux when it can put a price on on the open platform (such as Azure CPU cycles). But there is no price to be had when someone purchases a Lenovo laptop and then installs Linux. That's a loss. However, Microsoft has had to cover some serious ground to make up for nearly two decades of FUD (Fear Uncertainty Doubt), with regards to Linux and open source. Over the last few years, they've made great strides in the right direction, so it simply wouldn't make sense for them to besmirch all of that hard PR work. And so, again, the finger of blame probably points back to Lenovo on this one.

Bad news for Lenovo

If you look away from Lenovo, you find that other companies offer Microsoft Signature series hardware. In fact, both Dell and ASUS carry Signature devices. However, these two companies provide the means in the BIOS to switch the hard drive mode from RAID to AHCI. What does that do? Allows you to install Linux.

Forsooth! The truth has been revealed. This isn't a Microsoft issue, but a Lenovo issue...one that could either lead toward a deep conspiracy of Lenovo wanting to sell laptops that are guaranteed to run their adware or that they simply cannot correctly build a BIOS. I, for one, am not buying this is a scheme of Microsoft's to lock people out of installing Linux on hardware. Why? We've pretty much reached beyond the point of platform as king. If MS isn't locking Linux out of their flagship Surface hardware, why would they bother with Lenovo Yoga portables?

Lenovo isn't doing themselves any favors. Not when every other company on the planet has finally recognized that Linux is a viable option. With this latest discovery, Lenovo will lose business; so it's in their best interest to fix this issue immediately. Unfortunately, business now moves at the speed of social media, and word spreads very quickly within that realm.

I hope you're listening, Lenovo.

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About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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