The last binary ETHERNET driver i remember was nvnet. forcedeth replaced it later. The other well known binary driver was broadcom-wl. It took ages (i would say around linux 3.2) till the standard kernel drivers could replace it completely. I would not say it was hard to install - i wrote for example a script with dkms support for wl and ubuntu autodeteced wl as well via jockey. It really depends on the background you have got to decide what is really hard and what not. Today most (w)lan chips are supported directly by the kernel only some rare ones (like fritz usb b sticks) are not supported at all. Well if there is a regression in the kernel it can hurt much as well. I don't know whats up with ipw2200 that network-manager did not allow wpa with it. But i dont have that chip to test on my own. In general i would say lan (ethernet) is very good supported, wlan maybe 90% or more.
Wouldnt it be simpler to use spdif? Then the cheapest card is enough.