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BIOS is history. Long live BIOS!

JINOY JOSE P | Updated on March 08, 2018 Published on November 29, 2017
You mean the computer thingy?

Well, it’s much more than a thing or code or a program. The Basic Input/Output System or BIOS in a PC typically forms the backbone of a computer, even though most users or even PC makers won’t admit it. To your computer’s operating system (OS), BIOS is what John the Baptist was to Jesus of Nazareth, to put it really figuratively.

I’m curious…

For starters, BIOS is small slice of code that a PC’s motherboard carries within itself. It does the preliminary checks before an OS kicks in to perform heavier duties. The BIOS takes care of the basic initialisation processes in a PC; it boots (starts) the hardware and makes the first checks on it to make sure the hardware is in good health, the keyboard is connected, the random-access memory (RAM) is alive and kicking. If it feels all’s well, BIOS lets the OS takes over.

Well and good. But why is it dying then?

Chipmakers, especially Intel, feel the humble BIOS has served its time. American computer scientist Gary Kildall came up with the term BIOS in 1975. It then appeared in the so-called CP/M (Control Program/Monitor) operating system. Soon, it became part and parcel of personal computers and got super popular with the arrival of Microsoft’s Disk Operating System or DOS.

If you recall, BIOS was part of IBM’s first PC in 1981. Very soon, BIOS and the PC entered into a wedlock of sorts. BIOS became a powerful partner of the PC. Computer companies that wanted to build systems that worked with the PC had to build systems that essentially worked with the BIOS if they wanted their software to run well on the back of the OS. But as time went by, the importance of BIOS and its services started waning. Advancements in technology empowered the OS much more than expected and pushed the BIOS to the initial system boot, with the OS handling most of the operations.

Tell me about the death notice, please…

Just a few weeks ago, at an event organised by the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface Forum, chipmaker Intel revealed that by 2020 it will phase out the last remaining relics of the PC BIOS. This will mark a permanent shift to UEFI firmware.

What’s that?

The Unified Extensible Firmware Interface or UEFI also connects a computer’s firmware to its OS like BIOS does. It is also installed when the computer is made and is the first program that goes live when you switch on a computer. And it has many advantages over the good old BIOS. In other words, it addresses several handicaps and limitations of BIOS.

Such as?

It is faster, for one. It can handle large hard disk partitions, and do much more. To be frank, it is a micro OS. It is “programmable”, and this facility enables PC makers add applications and drivers to it. Obviously, this wasn’t possible with BIOS, which was very much dependent on the CPU or central processing unit of the computer.

Will this offer better security to the computer?

That’s the idea, or hope, rather. Many computer scientists now feel BIOS has become (un)suitably vulnerable. UEFI, they hope, will help hardware manufacturers get rid of the need to find workarounds for stale software. And as a result, this will modernise modern computing enhancing security and performance. PC hardware made the switch to UEFI with Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors, which were introduced in 2011. Now, most systems have UEFI. So, in a way, the demise of BIOS is an inevitable, though epochal, event in the history of computing. So, goodbye BIOS. You’ve had a great innings.

A weekly column that helps you ask the right questions

Published on November 29, 2017

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