Linux and the New Internet Computer
If you have the temerity to undo three screws on the back of the NIC, you can quickly access its innards, as shown in Figure 4. A quick peek shows a single-board computer, fan-cooled CPU, small power supply (with fan) and a CD-ROM drive. A 64MB PC100 DIMM provides system memory. A flash memory chip is used to save configuration settings and other items. Ethernet is provided by an SiS 900 chip set.
The NIC is a bargain considering the current street price of a single 64MB PC100 DIMM. Compare the NIC to Compaq's $499 iPAQ, IBM's $699 NetVista and ClearCube's $1,395 C3, and you'll see that the NIC is the least expensive, uses the same or smaller footprint and only lacks a hard drive. Linux hardware hackers will want to take a much closer look at the NIC's Award BIOS and IDE interface. Software wizards may want to explore modifying the Linux CD-ROM and perhaps building a custom system to support external storage USB devices. One could, at the very least, burn a new CD with additional X11 clients.
Obviously, the NIC is most easily used in a straightforward manner, either as a dial-up Internet appliance or a browser station attached to an existing LAN. Aside from playing some solitaire or pegboard games, the NIC's main function is to provide Netscape as a window to the Web.
The first thing you'll want to do is mount the NIC's CD-ROM in another computer and take a peek at the 200MB Linux file system. Don't bother booting the CD on another computer—you'll only get a kernel panic for your effort. After perusing the CD, you'll soon see that the NIC runs a Linux system stripped of nearly all software and services. Does this mean that you can't get a bit more functionality out of the system or modify the default folders and software?
Certainly not! After looking around, I found that I was able to launch nearly any X11 client from the CD-ROM while the NIC was running by using Netscape and a convenient launching client named launchapp in Netscape's URL field. For example, to pop up an rxvt terminal window with root access, you can use a URL like this:
By the way, although not initially obvious, windows under the default Blackbox window manager are resizable. You have to put your pointer on the extreme lower-right corner of a client's window, then click and drag to resize. The grab area is small—about 20 pixels high by five pixels wide.
Once I had a root access terminal window, it was easy to start poking around while the NIC's file system was running. I next turned my attention to the NIC's desktop features. The NIC's tools folder is stored in flash memory under the /flash directory. Under the /flash/desktop directory, I found directories containing the Blackbox configuration files for the default games, clients and other utilities.
All I then needed to do was create my own entries to add additional programs to the desktop. However, I searched the file system in vain for any text editor, such as pico, jed or vi. Would any Linux hacker give up at this point?
Definitely not! Every Linux system includes a text editor, even if no text editors are installed. I navigated to the /flash/desktop/XTerminal directory, then used the cat command, along with output redirection, to create a desktop entry for the rxvt client:
# cat >rxvt.desktop<\n> desktop_entry: name = rxvt icon = /img/telnet.gif comment = rxvt exec = /usr/X11R6/bin/rxvt terminal = false type = application
After pressing Enter at the last line, I then pressed Ctrl+D to save the file. Reopening the tools and desktop folder revealed the new entry. But what happens if you make a mistake or misconfigure your NIC's flash memory?
Don't worry. Just be happy that there's a “special” cgi-bin script you can use to upgrade or reset your NIC to factory status. Use the following undocumented URL:
You'll see a screen that allows you to update the system using a CD-ROM from The New Internet Computer Company or wipe your system clean of its configuration.
Although the current NIC software distribution is labelled version 1.1, the only supported USB device happens to be the only supported printer—the Epson Stylus Color 740 printer. Considering the unused disk space available on the CD-ROM, I'd expect expanded printer support and many additional games, utilities or X11 clients. Also missing is a working help system or even a local copy of the users guide in HTML. Considering that the main NIC application is Netscape, the default home page should at least be set to an index for a small help system. The default Blackbox root menu should be modified to provide additional virtual desktops and window handling. Keeping in the spirit of open source, The New Internet Computer Company graciously provides links to all the source and patches used to build the NIC's CD-ROM. Browse to www.thinknic.com/gpl.html. You'll find links to every software package, including a link to an ISO9660 image of an updated version 1.2 system CD-ROM!
Despite some small initial limitations, the fact is that the NIC works very well. This appliance represents the first, best and least expensive of the new breed of affordable Internet and network appliance computers. Viewed in the context of its design, this device is a bargain. And considering that the NIC runs Linux, this device offers a tantalizing opportunity for Linux hardware and software hackers.
Bill Ball is the author of numerous books about Linux but still doesn't know what to do with his multiple copies of shrink-wrapped Microsoft operating system software and CD-ROMs. He is a member of the Northern Virginia Linux Users Group.