Linux as an Internet Kiosk
Though we were one of the first, we are certainly not the only company trying to create a public Internet access solution. We are initially targeting a small segment of the market, namely cafés and similar establishments, but we realize that our system can be applied to a much broader range of sites. We feel that we have, in a general sense, the best Internet terminal system on the market.
We feel this way for a number of reasons. First, we have an interface that is as idiot-proof as we can make it (Netscape notwithstanding). We have a fast and reliable link to the Internet that is up all the time. We provide accounts and other services that others do not. We don't make users pay through the nose to use our terminal.
By comparison, other Internet terminals (most of which run Microsoft operating systems) are more geared towards giving the user “neat toys” to play with, without providing any incentive to actually use the system. In order to get these toys, the machines have to run Windows, which means that they give up all the benefits of Linux that we have exploited. They are unstable and crash all the time. They do not provide an easy-to-use interface. Billing systems are often kludged on; many systems simply cut power to the keyboard and mouse when a user's time is up. They provide minimal security; on virtually every terminal we have played with, we have managed to get full administrative access to the system in only a few minutes.
The fundamental point to remember here is that, without Linux, we could not have done any of this with as little capital, as little time and as few headaches as we did. Some of it is outright impossible with any other operating system, even other Unices. Because Linux is Unix-like, we can control every aspect of the system. And because Linux is free, we can do things like add our own frame-relay drivers to the kernel with impunity.
Our first NetPod became available for public use at café Liberty in August, 1996. After many months of feedback from our users (and after waiting three months for NYNEX to install our frame-relay lines), we placed two more NetPods at the Someday café and Seattle Joe's café in the Cambridge/Boston area in February, 1997. We are preparing for a massive set of new sites this Fall.
Building the infrastructure for the NetPod system, both the network and the core software, has been challenging, but we have shown that it works, and that it works well. As we faced each challenge, we saw that a box running Linux could provide a solution. Now we can concentrate on adding new features to expand the appeal of the system.
Unfortunate though it may seem, it turns out that many of our users want to access their America Online accounts through our NetPods. We purchased a copy of Wabi (Windows application binary interface) through Caldera, and we have found (much to our amazement) that it actually runs AOL's Windows software, and in fact runs it quite well. We recently incorporated it, along with many other new features and a streamlined, more complete set of user tools. There are still many new features under construction.
In short, if it involves networking, we want to add it to the NetPod. The reason the NetPods can do what they do, and the reason we're justified in even considering some of the crazy ideas we have, is that we use Linux on every system in the NetPod network. Just imagine using Windows 95 to implement multiuser access controls over a distributed file system using frame-relay, then switching from Netscape to an SVGAlib virtual terminal running Quake, then to AOL running inside a Windows emulator. It should send shivers up your spine. With Linux, it's a piece of cake.
Kevin McCormick is a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, majoring in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He is the head programmer for the NetPod project. When not slaving away at MIT or NetPod, he tries to network everything in sight to the Internet, including (no kidding) the toilets at his fraternity. He can be reached at email@example.com.