Xbox Linux team issues antitrust plea

The programmers who got Linux to run on Microsoft's gaming console now want the EC's antitrust body to head off a legal response
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor

A group of Linux programmers has sent an open letter to the European Commission, asking the EU's executive arm to protect their efforts to build Linux software for Microsoft's Xbox video game console.

Three members of the Xbox Linux Project, which has successfully built versions of the GNU/Linux operating system that can be run on the Xbox, argued in a letter faxed to the EC's antitrust arm that the console is little more than a Microsoft-only PC system cross-subsidised by the software company's operating system monopoly.

The project's letter raises questions about the extent to which computer manufacturers should be allowed to control what runs on their hardware. Intel and Microsoft are working on initiatives that would tighten controls over how software is allowed to run on PCs.

Microsoft is acting anti-competitively by preventing users from running software of their choice -- such as Linux -- on the console, and aggressively going after companies that manufacture the "mod chips" necessary to run such unauthorised software, the project claimed.

"The Xbox PC is a standard PC," wrote Xbox Linux members Andy Green, Milosch Meriac and Michael Steil. "The major difference is that Microsoft have added to this standard PC mechanisms to try to ensure that only Microsoft approved software may function on the machine."

The console is built on standard PC components such as a Pentium processor, an Nvidia graphics chip, and even a stripped-down version of the Windows 2000 operating system core. The Xbox Linux project was able to allow a PC version of Mandrake Linux to run on the Xbox by building software that bypassed the console's normal boot-up mechanism, but did not have to alter the system's hardware -- other than using a mod chip.

"Although Xbox Linux has nothing to do with unauthorised copying, thanks to the way Microsoft have added protection logic to stop anything running on the box except software approved by them, our Linux distribution requires a mod chip," said Green. "So in order to exist we have to encourage the use of mod chips."

The project is hoping to be able to release a version of Linux that can be booted on an Xbox without the use of a mod chip, and says it has contacted Microsoft on three occasions to ask that Microsoft "sign" the software -- attaching a cryptographic code that would allow the console to recognise it as legitimate.

"We have received no reply at all, yet we saw over 1,000 hits on our Web site from the microsoft.com domain in the few days after releasing the letter (to the public)," the project said in its letter.

Green said the project was inspired to write to the EC by the recent seizure of the site Isonews.com and the arrest of its owner, David Rocci, who pleaded guilty under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to selling mod chips over his site.

The Xbox Linux developers want to bring the discussion around the Xbox's anti-piracy controls into the open, to avoid being branded as pirates themselves, Green said.

"The core feature that gives us a good hope of a positive resolution is that the Xbox PC is just that -- a PC running a version of Windows," he said. "Because of this we suggest it is directly relevant to existing antitrust probes and constraints that apply to the PC Windows market."

In its letter, the project requested that the EC examine how Microsoft is allegedly "trying to ensure that there can be no independent competition in operating systems or application programs on this PC platform."

Microsoft has taken a hard line against Xbox mod chip manufacturers, and was believed to be behind the closure last October of one of the biggest mod chip sellers, Hong Kong-based Lik Sang. However, other mod chips have come into circulation since then.

The software company has not voiced any opinion about the Xbox Linux project.

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