Hunting Penguins in the Desert: The CES Report
Fortunately, Linux still has promotional advantages for some companies; especially those competing against closed-box makers who value all of Linux' virtues other than its hackability.
Take TiVo boxes. As we all know, TiVos run on Linux. But, as with so many other embedded Linux cases, TiVo as a company defaults to silence on the subject of its operating system. So it was a welcome relief to find a company at CES (one of the Eleven) that not only builds TiVo-like boxes on Linux but decorates its logo with a penguin:
The company is Interact-TV and its "Telly:" boxes are designed to be much more than DVRs (digital video recorders--the category TiVo created). Interact-TV boxes are, in the Linux tradition, all-purpose devices. Home entertainment servers, they call them. Telly boxes feature TiVo-like PVR functions, but they also provide an interactive storage and content management system for all your video, audio and photo archives. Interact-TV CEO (and Linux Journal subscriber) Bob Fuhrmann explains:
We want to make these things as open as possible, so you can record and store files any way you please, through any connection you choose. You can rip audio CDs into any format you want: MP3, Ogg Vorbis, WAV, uncompressed--whatever. You can burn audio or MP3 CDs. We have USB and FireWire connections for whatever outside devices you want to plug in. Our video library supports MPEG2, MPEG4, MPEG1, OGV or OGM files. Again, whatever you like.
And because it's all in a network-mounted drive, you can do a lot with it: Internet radio, CDDB database lookup.
There's a built-in Web server, so you can access it from any Web-enabled device on your home network. It has SAMBA. There's a Wi-Fi option. We support most CAT-5 and USB wireless adapters.
Again, it's all open. You may want to replace the hard drive or add a second one. You may want to upgrade from CD-RW to DVD-RW. We let you do that without breaking the warranty.
A lot of our customers are Linux savvy. So we give them root access. Please, go hack away. We're already seeing a lot of community development. In fact, some of the features we're introducing at the show came from the community.
We have support for two-screen interactive applications, coordinated with either a live or recorded program, which wouldn't be possible if the unit wasn't also connected over the Net.
We also have program guides that you can download for satellite, cable and terrestrial TV reception. But we also support content that isn't mainstream, communities of artists, for example. Our goal is to allow any kind of content to be easily downloadable to the box. And to make it accessible to PCs because it's a network-mounted drive.
We're also open to future developments. HDTV is coming along this quarter. It'll be a swap-out of parts for registered users.
I asked him if the company might do a DVR for Internet radio, something I'd love to see. He replied:
We've had some requests for a DVR for radio, NPR listeners, for example. And we've been talking with RealNetworks about its Helix platform. They've bent over backwards with reasonable licensing programs for companies like ours. Their developers have been very helpful and open. So we're planning on moving forward with that. Our current offering is still a little bit spotty. Pure MP3 stuff is straightforward, but there's less and less of that. Some of the sources are switching to Windows Media 9 or Real and dropping MP3. Helix has a good architecture for switching between codecs in an agnostic way. We'll also probably enable some of the additional video codecs as well.
"What about DRM?" I asked.
We don't want to get directly involved with DRM, but we do want to give customers access to protected content. Working with RealNetworks is helping with that. We also may have to license Windows Media 9 directly. We've been sort of avoiding that, but the customers may give us no choice about it.
Fuhrmann said the company sells both directly (you can buy on-line) and through resellers. Because the products still appeal mostly to early adopters, we can expect them to appear first at boutique retailers and later at "big box" stores. Meanwhile, they're selling as value-adds for home entertainment systems. Best Buy, for example, offers a home networking service at some of its locations, and media servers are a natural fit for those installations. Interact-TV also has an OEM strategy in which they sell only the software. EOS is the "entertainment media development platform".
Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal