Xbox goes online... with Linux

The Xbox Linux Project has released a basic version of its software, giving the gaming console network functions and a Web server

Owners of an Xbox don't necessarily need to wait until the November launch of Microsoft's Xbox Live to get their console online. With a modification chip and a little technical ingenuity, the Xbox can now act as a simple Web server running on the Linux operating system.

This feat is made possible by a loosely organised group of programmers centred in Europe, who have created a version of the Linux core, or kernel, that can load on the Xbox hardware. The Xbox Linux Project, as it is called, draws on the fact that the Xbox is based on industry-standard PC hardware, and in fact plans to turn the machine into a fully functional PC -- albeit one that only costs £200.

"With the first release of Xbox Linux, consumers will soon have a choice to connect to the normal Internet, using normal browsers, and run any Linux programs for free," members of the project stated. Release 0.1 appeared on Monday.

Programmers are particularly fond of Linux because the terms of its licence -- the GNU General Public License -- allow them to alter the software's source code for a variety of uses. Linux has been made to run everything from a wristwatch to a mainframe.

The Xbox Linux release is the latest in a series of small steps toward a functioning Xbox version of Linux, but the first to show tangible results. Upon booting, Linux enables Xbox's built-in networking hardware and loads a few applications including Telnet and a Web server, so that it can be controlled over a local area network (LAN). The server displays Web pages with information about the Xbox Linux Project.

Project members said the kernel is able to boot certain types of off-the-shelf hard drives connected to the Xbox, but it does not do so by default. Drivers for sound and USB devices such as keyboards have also been released. The software does not yet support video.

The kernel, version 2.4.18, is embedded in a 1MB Basic Input/Output System (BIOS), software which controls the basic functions of the hardware, and can be loaded in two ways: from a memory module, which requires some programming expertise, or from an ordinary CD-ROM. The CD-ROM contains a program that loads the BIOS into the Xbox's memory and begins running it from there.

However, because this program is unsigned -- meaning it does not contain code indicating that it has been authorised by Microsoft -- it can only run on a machine with a modification chip (or mod chip) that allows unsigned software to execute. Eventually the project plans to create a full Linux distribution for Xbox that can run without any hardware modification.

Michael Steil, the Germany-based project leader, said he hopes the release will encourage more developers to contribute to the project. "People will just be able to upload Linux to their mod chip and control it through a network connection. This way, we can attract more people to work on other issues, such as TV output," he said.

The project is keen to stress that its work is not intended to aid piracy of any sort. None of the code is to contain any privileged Microsoft code, and none of the developers are allowed to use information gleaned from the Xbox software developer kit, which carries restrictions on how the information may be used.

Steil claims that the project's work is protected under the "reverse engineering" clause in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which allows engineers to circumvent copy-protection software in order to allow computer programs to interoperate.

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