Here Come the Devices!

As predicted, 2001 shapes up as “The Year of Linux in Devices”.

Last year, I said 2001 would be the year embedded Linux starts popping up in all kinds of “smart devices”, consumer-oriented and otherwise. It looks as though my prediction is materializing on schedule, despite the popping of the dot-com/Linux bubble and the ensuing economic downturn.

In this month's column, we take a take a brief look at three recently announced consumer products that have Linux embedded inside: an Internet/TV from Sylvania, a personal server from Memora and a Mobile Multimedia Communicator from Galleo.

The Sylvania Internet/TV

This summer, Sylvania Computer Products is expected to introduce a new 27-inch digital TV that combines the functions of a TV with those of an internet appliance. The device, which owes its internal intelligence to a single-chip PC running an embedded Linux operating system, marks a key milestone in the television industry by being one of the first consumer TVs to include a built-in internet appliance. Call it the dawn of the Internet/TV.

Sylvania's new SPC2700iHD marks the dawn of the Internet/TV.

Sylvania's new Internet/TV, designated to be Model SPC2700iHD, includes:

  • A high-resolution HDTV-ready monitor with a built-in conventional TV tuner.

  • An embedded internet appliance computer that supports dial-up (56K) and broadband (Ethernet) internet access.

  • Linux-based operating system with an easy-to-use graphical user interface that unifies TV watching and internet viewing.

  • A combination remote/keyboard/mouse to simplify system operation.

  • Internet-based control and database services.

The Internet/TV receives broadcast and cable TV signals via its built-in TV tuner, but it is also usable as a high-resolution display for external video sources, including VCRs, DVD players, DSS, cable boxes and computers (up to 800 × 600 SVGA resolution).

The system's internal CPU is a 266MHz National Semiconductor Geode, equipped with 64MB of RAM and a 16MB nonvolatile Flash disk. Its long list of input/output ports includes an IR receiver for interfacing with its remote/keyboard/mouse device, an IR blaster for sending data to external devices, two USB ports, a 100Mb Ethernet port, a 56K phone line modem, composite video inputs/outputs with L/R audio, S-video input with L/R audio and high-resolution RGB video input for either HDTV or computer-generated SVGA input.

The real power of the Sylvania Internet/TV comes from a combination of internal software and on-line services created by Ch.1, Inc. (http://www.ch1.com/). Ch.1 licensed hardware and software technology for the device to Sylvania and also serves as an Internet/TV service provider. The unit's so-called Ch.1-enabled functions are used to watch TV, browse the Internet, create web and TV favorites, view a customized programming guide, access preprogrammed category portals, send e-mail, chat, shop and listen to MP3s. You can even watch a TV program while simultaneously interacting with its associated web site using the set's Picture-in-Portal technology, or you can direct your VCR (or HDR) to record through Ch.1's web-based control screen. On-screen buttons give you easy access to the Internet/TV's user manual, product or accessory upgrades, customer service and technical support.

Notably, unlike solutions based on adding an Internet access settop box to a conventional TV, the Sylvania Internet/TV lets you browse the Web with full 800 × 600 SVGA resolution. And if you want the comfort of typing with a full-size keyboard, you can easily add one as an optional accessory. So, this device may be the ticket to internet access for the roughly 50% of consumers that don't already own a PC. And best of all, they'll all be (unknowingly) Linux users!

The Servio Personal Server

New England startup Memora Corporation (http://www.memora.com/) hopes to establish a new product category, the “personal server”, with its Linux-based Servio, an easy-to-use appliance-like device that integrates a combination of services increasingly in demand in today's “well-connected” homes: gateway, firewall, wired/wireless network server, e-mail hosting and shared storage of multimedia and other files. Besides offering these capabilities within the home, the device also offers secure external access (via the Internet) to e-mail, web pages and designated files. According to Memora, the personal server functions as “a single point of presence for organizing, accessing, and sharing [users'] digital information when, where, and with whomever they choose”.

Memora's Personal Server lets users organize, access and share their digital information when, where and with whomever they choose.

The Servio Personal Server is essentially a small (and unique looking) Linux-based computer system, not too different from an ordinary desktop PC, that requires no keyboard or display to operate. Inside there's a 600MHz (or faster) Intel Celeron processor with 128MB of memory and a 30GB hard disk. External input/output connections consist of two fast Ethernet (10/100 Mb/sec) ports and two USB ports. One Ethernet port typically connects to a DSL modem, while the other goes to an in-home LAN. The USB ports let you connect the device to wireless LANs and other supported external interfaces.

The Servio's internal software consists of Linux, some other open-source programs (including the Apache web server, MySQL and the Exim mail server) and a set of Memora-written programs that control the configuration and operation of the device. The latter are browser-based applications that, among other things, integrate e-mail, database and web services.

The system comes preconfigured for plug-and-run operation by nontechnical users. You simply hook it up between a broadband connection (DSL or cable) and a local (wired or wireless) network inside your home. Next, you turn on the power and let the system's auto-configuration program discover your network's settings. Finally, using any PC browser, you enter your name and a public name for the device. If everything goes as expected, you're now ready to set up accounts for friends, associates and family members, and begin sharing photos, video clips, music, files and take advantage of the other services provided by the device.

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