March 15, 2001

Lights, camera, Linux: TV projects embrace Linux

Author: JT Smith

- By Dan Berkes -

It wasn't too long ago that the Open Source community thrilled to the news that Linux was destined for the handheld market. Now, however, such announcements barely elicit a half-raised eyebrow from many. Where are the really innovative Linux deployments happening these days? Why, TV land, of course. That's where all the magic happens.
Because Linux isn't wedded to a single processor -- or a single anything else, for that matter -- it has a versatility factor that's quite attractive. It's this factor that's caught the attention of professional developers and hobby hackers. The end result is an operating system that works just as well on desktop computers as it does in PDAs or when shoehorned into a game console.

Embedded Linux is the power behind a parade of Internet appliances and personal digital assistants scheduled to hit the market in 2001. Familiar brand names like Gateway, Sony, Nokia, and Ericsson have embraced Linux like an old familiar friend, as any corporation might do when presented with an OS that will save it a few million bucks on development costs.

Believe it or not, there was a time only a few years ago when Linux in any place but a desktop computer elicited "oohs" and "aahs" from an awestruck audience. When Agenda Computing recently announced that its VR3 Linux-based PDA would arrive early this spring, it received a barely perceptible smile and nod. What does it take to get us excited over a new use of Linux these days?

Sylvania's Computer Products division might have something that will make the jaded whistle with wonder. Coming this summer to North American electronics stores is the SPC2700iHD -- or Internet/TV -- a digital television that combines a high-quality video entertainment system with a user-friendly Internet service.

Previous attempts at combining a television signal with Internet access have been met with less than unbridled consumer enthusiasm. Microsoft's WebTV, the clear leader in the television/Internet "convergence" market, has sold far less than two million units since its introduction in 1996, and the company won't disclose how many actual subscribers it has. A roster of similar products announced at the time of WebTV's launch, including an integrated television/Internet devices from electronics maker Curtis Mathes, failed to materialize.

It could be that Sylvania is in the right place at the right time. Its new Internet/TV will offer two very new technologies in one convenient package. The 27" television set is capable of receiving digital television signals, the new format that's gradually repelacing analog broadcasts in the United States. Next, it's presenting Internet access through an embedded appliance powered by Linux, the operating system that many would say is gradually replacing proprietary operating systems all over the world.

To design this new device, Sylvania teamed up with embedded appliance designer Ch. 1 Inc., of Santa Ana, Calif. Ch. 1 supplies the computer inside the Internet/TV, a small device that runs an embedded Linux operating system powered by National Semiconductor's Geode processor. With 64MB of RAM and a solid-state storage device capable of storing television program information and running Web, e-mail, chat, and digital music playback devices, the Internet/TV should be anything but underpowered.

Why Linux? Sylvania and Ch. 1 representatives said that Linux cost less than developing a from-scratch operating system, or licensing an existing one. By using a low-cost operating system with a proven track-record of success -- not to mention robust Internet and multimedia capabilities -- Sylvania is able to push the Internet/TV to market "substantially faster."

The device will run as a standalone unit via the built-in 56K modem, or can run as part of a high-speed network with its Ethernet port. Use an existing Internet account, or pay an extra $10 per month to use the Ch.1 ISP. There's an ample supply of input and output connections for video and technology on back -- everything from coax to USB to S-Video is supported, so you can hook up all of your gadgets.

At a suggested retail price of $899, the Sylvania Internet/TV is one of the less expensive digital televisions available for purchase. No demonstration has been offered yet, but Ch. 1 and Sylvania officials have described its look and feel as "a sophisticated blend of Internet and television content."

Not that you need the backing of a multi-million dollar corporate subsidiary to have the same kind of fun with Linux. All that's required is some spare time, a lot of patience, and the electronic components of a video game console system -- a system you might find at a very low price if certain rumors are to be believed.

There's a nasty rumor going around that the Sega Dreamcast will soon go the way of the way of so many gaming consoles before it. Oddly enough, those rumors have been fueled by an official denial from the official Sony camp, who stated they would continue to support and develop for their console, but that new units would not be produced after March 2001.

In the meantime, you're likely to find great deals on the Dreamcast from fearful retailers eager to dump the system before Sega drops any sort of bomb. Their loss is your gain: If you're not interested in gaming, then that Dreamcast will serve as a handy living room Linux box. Add on the optional network adapter, and you're all set to telnet with abandon from your couch.

The dedicated community of developers at Dreamcast Linux have put together an impressive collection of tools and documentation -- everything one needs to get Linux up and running on the console, from the obligatory mini-HOWTO to an impressive Dreamcast Technical Manual. It does help in this case that every hardware setup will be the same, of course.

You may be able to bring Linux to your living room without shelling out a shocking amount of cash in the process. A spare computer and a supported video card with video out capabilities should do the trick, and have you perusing your newsgroups from the comfort of your La-Z-Boy in no time at all. This is, after all, the world of Open Source, where there's always more than one road to the same destination.

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