Linux and the New Internet Computer

The New Internet Computer Company may become known for producing and selling the lowest-cost Internet and network capable computer on the market today—the NIC, or New Internet Computer.
Under the Hood

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.

Figure 4. The NIC is a simple, single-board computer with few parts.

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.

Hacking the NIC

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:

http://localhost/cgi-bin/launchapp?/usr/X11R6/bin/rxvt

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:

http://localhost/special.html

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.

What's Missing?

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.

The Good/The Bad

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.

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need some help

Anonymous's picture

i am not able to use net from my service provider.i tried to run commads but it didnt helped me.can anyone put light on how to use net using my oun isp instead of net zero i am not very experienced in linux.

My Take On The NIC

sulement's picture

I have recently had the pleasure of playing with the NIC. Using the original disc shows too many limitations. The dead links, the aged and crashy Netscape 4.76 browser lead you to believe it's only current purpose is to provide you with a good working laptop CD ROM drive.

BUT, add a Puppy Linux Barebones or a Damn Small Linux hacked especially for the NIC, (a better choice, by the way), and something magic happens.

The NIC I used was given a memory upgrade from 32MB to 64MB. Good as long as you use a low-profile RAM stick. (It has to be low-profile to keep the CD ROM from tilting too far forward to allow its door to open).

I'm told the NIC can take up to 256MB of RAM. I wasn't able to try it.

The Puppy Linux is a great light-overhead version of Linux and the Dillo browser is pretty darned nice. But if you're going to make it
an ultimately user-friendly box, I recommend the Damn Small Linux.

Automatic video settings, automatic network card discovery and Firefox as the browser of choice give the old NIC a flair that makes it a kick to use.

With no hard drive, you are surfing on a virus-free, spyware-free
compact machine. If websurfing is your largest goal, this little box is the most fun you can have on a low-priced little computer.

Of course Puppy and Damn Small come with some great programs, as does
the original NIC CD. And the NIC is a pretty tweakable little box.

I have one that we pushed to run with an AMD K6-2 at about 457Mhz. thanks to the adjustable voltage and multiplier settings in the BIOS.

All-in-all, the NIC is a cool and still very useable computer. If you
are lucky enough to get your hands on one, have fun with it. It's bound to put a smile on your face.

Linux Damn Small hackeado for nic

Anonymous's picture

pleace link web for download Linux Damn Small for nic thank :)

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