Here Come the Devices!

by Rick Lehrbaum

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.

The Galleo Mobile Multimedia Communicator

Galleo (http://www.galleo.com/) [see the July/August 2001 issue of our sister publication, Embedded Linux Journal, for further details on the Galleo] recently announced a Linux-based Mobile Multimedia Communicator. Like several other newly-announced handheld computers with wireless connectivity, the device combines the functions of a PDA, web appliance and cellular phone. Galleo's device comes with software that supports cellular phone communication, internet access, web browsing, PIM applications, multimedia (MP3 player, streaming video), games and personalized content, plus IPSec-compliant VPN network security.

Galleo's Mobile Multimedia Communicator combines the functions of a PDA, web appliance and cellular phone.

According to Galleo product manager Yovav Meydad, patent-pending cellular communication technology delivers an “always on, always connected” data communication capability that represents “a credible alternative to WAP” and “gives the end user the same [web browsing] experience [as on a desktop PC] while he is on the move”. “Fit-to-page” software with zoom/pan functions allows viewing standard web pages on the unit's landscape-mode quarter VGA display. Another aid to using unmodified on-line content and services is an included Java Virtual Machine.

A full-featured web browser supports HTTP 1.1, HTML 4.0, XML 1.0, JavaScript, SSL, TLS, RSA, VPN, Personal Java 1.2 JVM and display of PNG, GIF and JPEG images. MP3 player, media player and video-streaming functions are also included, as are a full PIM suite including functions for e-mail, calendar, tasks, contacts, notes and data synchronization.

The user interface supports pen and touch input using a stylus with software that provides handwriting recognition and an on-screen keyboard, plus a few hard keys. A built-in joystick is intended to support gaming and simplify web site navigation.

Inside there's a 206MHz Intel StrongARM SA-1110 system-on-chip processor equipped with 32MB system RAM and 16MB of nonvolatile Flash disk. Its display is a bright, full-color, 320 × 240 pixel TFT LCD. The unit provides input/output interfaces for RS-232 serial, USB, infrared (IrDA) and stereo audio (for headphones/MP3 connection). There is also a pair of expansion slots for additional memory and secure data cards. A built-in cellular telephone module supports dualband GSM, GPRS, TriCodec and fax/data transmission at 14.4 kbps. Galleo plans to support CDPD for the North American market but plans to introduce the device first in Europe, where GSM and GPRS are making their initial appearance.

Rick Lehrbaum (rick@linuxdevices.com) created the LinuxDevices.com “embedded Linux portal”, which is now part of the ZDNet Linux Resource Center. Rick has worked in the field of embedded systems since 1979. He cofounded Ampro Computers, founded the PC/104 Consortium and was instrumental in creating and launching the Embedded Linux Consortium.
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