Programmer puts penguin on Xbox

A German programmer says he has created the first homebrew software to run on Microsoft's gaming console, the first step in turning the Xbox into a Linux machine

A German programmer says he has made the first step towards running the Linux operating system on Microsoft's Xbox games console -- without running into any legal entaglements.

Michael Steil, a German programmer, has built an application called "linuxpreview", which simply flashes the Xbox LED and draws a penguin on the Xbox start-up screen, along with the message "Xbox Linux Coming Soon!" and a link to the Xbox Linux Web site. However, it is touted as the first application to run on Xbox without using tools from the official Xbox Software Development Kit (SDK), and is the first step toward essentially turning the Xbox into a Linux-based PC.

Steil is the head of the Xbox Linux Project, which is marshalling volunteers to figure out a way to run Linux -- which directly competes with Microsoft's Windows operating system -- on the console without using any of Microsoft's proprietary development tools. In some ways, the project should be simple, since Xbox is built from hardware that is identical or similar to a standard Intel-based PC.

The first barrier to overcome, however, is Xbox's BIOS (basic input-output system), which differs from that of a PC. In order to start up, Linux needs a bootloader, and the existing varieties all depend on software such as a PC BIOS, or the basic operating system, DOS. The trick, according to Steil, is to figure out enough about the Xbox's BIOS to write a Linux bootloader.

His new program doesn't yet accomplish this, but it's a start, Steil said. "Linuxpreview is a small application, and it's the first one, which shows that it is possible to write an application that has not been developed with Microsoft's SDK and does not contain any Microsoft code," he said in an email interview.

"It would be trivial to write an application showing a penguin logo on the screen which has been written using Microsoft's development tools every regular Xbox game developer has access to. We cannot use this software of course, so it's more difficult to write software that 'does something' on top of the Xbox system software," Steil added.

He said that linuxpreview can be used as a template for the upcoming bootloader and other applications. However, once Linux has booted, other applications will only have to deal with the Linux environment, and will not have to deal directly with the Xbox BIOS, according to Steil.

The current application runs on an Xbox with modified hardware, allowing it to run non-Xbox applications, but ultimately the Xbox Linux developers are aiming to get Linux up and running with a software-only method. An anonymous donor recently offered $200,000 (about £140,000) for various stages in the Xbox Linux project, with $100,000 for finding a software-only Linux solution.

The current necessity of hardware modification isn't just inconvenient, it can also be expensive for programmers who are spending their spare cash on the consoles. "I now have my third Xbox, two were broken because of my hardware research," said Enrico Kern, another German programmer working on the project.

On the other hand, the Linux enthusiasts are well aware that, according to analyst estimates, Microsoft is losing $125 or more for every console it sells. "We are no friends of Microsoft," Kern said.

Linux is based on an open-source licence, beloved by hackers because it allows them to modify and redistribute its underlying source code, as long as the resulting software is itself open source.

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