Linux--The Internet Appliance?

by Phil Hughes

As the Internet grows it becomes a source for more and more useful but non-technical information. For example, the U.S. Postal Service has a web page that is very useful to anyone who wants to mail something. The Internet is also rapidly becoming the most cost-effective way to transfer information, since it offers much cheaper delivery than methods such as FAX machines.

It is in the best interest of companies using the Internet to distribute information for everyone to get on the Internet, so as to eliminate a duplicate channel for distributing information. While this won't happen overnight, some of them will be willing to help make it happen.

To this end, a $350 appliance that connects to your television has just been announced. However, it requires a TV, offers poor resolution and the input device is a glorified TV remote control. It could be used for some basic Internet access, but it isn't a serious approach to real Internet access.

What I want to do is encourage the Linux activists out there to think about proposing Linux as an important part of the solution. Linux is already a significant player on the web server end of the picture. Why not use Linux to build this “appliance” as well?

What Is Needed?

Before Linux can be the solution, we need to define the problem. From what I have read, this appliance is a low-cost computer system that can connect to the Internet, along with the necessary software to send and receive electronic mail and browse the Web. If you have been seriously working with Linux, you probably think Linux already does this. Well, it does. That is, it does this job for you, but it is far from an appliance.

Think of a VCR—that's an appliance. You buy it, take it home, plug it into a couple of things, set the time and stations in your area, and you are up and running. Figure about 30 minutes to get it out of its box, connected and running.

Now, remember, lots of people think a VCR is too complicated. If you talk to VCR owners, you will probably find that quite a few have the time blinking 12:00, and that many don't know how to program their VCR to record a program at a time when they will be away from the TV.

Now that I have defined the average user, you should have a better idea of what is needed. In particular, something that is easier to set up than a VCR that will allow Internet access.

Can This Be Done?

Yes. And, with Linux? Yes again. In fact, it is more likely that it can be done with Linux than with other systems, because you have the source code to work with. And, as Linux is frugal with resources, it can be done with less investment in hardware.

Finally, if you do this, will it sell? Again, I feel the answer is yes. While many people need (or think they need) a computer system and will go for a low-end Mac or PC with MS Windows, there are many more people—millions—who don't want a computer, but do want access to information. Chances are that many of these people will later discover that they do want a word processor, a way to FAX and other computer-related tasks. If the cost of entry for the appliance is lower than a computer, lots of people will start with the appliance. With proper design, this appliance could also grow up into the other tasks while, of course, still running Linux.

How Do We Build It?

The key to success is to create something with high-functionality and a minimum cost. A basic 486 or 5x86 system with 16MB RAM and almost any disk should do it. It is probably worth including a CD-ROM drive in the package—2x units can be found for around $30 and this can really simplify things. Checking out the local computer shopper magazine proves that I could easily assemble these systems for $800 by buying everything at retail. And over $200 of this is the price of a monitor. I think this basic system could be produced for $500 in quantity—possibly less.

Now, this computer isn't good for much unless we can convert it from a general-purpose computer to an appliance that anyone can use. While not particularly hard, doing it correctly is the secret. Here are some considerations that help turn it into an appliance:

  • Make it initially boot and load from CD.

  • Use XDM so there is always a graphics screen.

  • Have some built-in logins like mom and dad.

  • Include support for all reasonable connectivity options including ISDN.

  • Use diald so connections happen automatically.

  • Cut a deal with some ISPs and have default connect files for them.

  • On initial load, the system should ask for connection information. The questions should, whenever possible, be multiple choice.

  • Include an automatic backup script for the configuration files.

  • Include a decent web browser. Maybe Netscape would finally support Linux if this was done right.

  • Build a web page where the users can get help/more information, and include this as the default location for the browser.

I think that will get things off to a good start. If a bunch of readers decide to give this a try, great. I think we could all learn from the experiences of others. Then, possibly, hardware manufacturers will realize there really is an opportunity for selling appliances here.

This Is Called Win-Win

There is a real chance for a serious win-win situation here. If all goes according to plan, there will be millions of new Linux boxes out there in the world, millions of people will get Internet access at a lower cost than they would have otherwise, some hardware manufacturers will make money, and some money will end up in the hands of people who worked on the software. For the long-term, these millions of new Linux users will soon want to buy that word processor, spreadsheet and personal information manager. Everybody wins.

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