[aclug-L] AOL considering Linux device, sources say
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AOL considering Linux device, sources say
By Stephen Shankland
May 10, 1999, 12:30 p.m. PT
America Online is considering the Linux operating system as one option for
running an inexpensive Internet access device, according to sources familiar
with the project.
One source said America Online has approached Compaq Computer as a possible
manufacturer of a Linux-based AOL access device. Independently, Compaq is
developing a television set-top box based on Linux, sources said.
As Linux spreads down into more consumer-oriented devices, it becomes a
better and better way for America Online and others to wean themselves of
dependence on Microsoft Windows. But this is by no means a "Microsoft
killer"--AOL, while exploring options for getting users to its site, isn't
likely to abandon Windows altogether. The company's chief concern remains
delivering content to its subscribers rather than the underlying technology
In general, AOL believes that "no one company or technology" has established
the path to broadband service, chief financial officer J. Michael Kelly said.
"There are multiple sources, like wireless, DSL, and cable solutions. We hope
to gain access to all of that," he said.
"The feasibility of [an AOL-Linux project] is highly possible," said
International Data Corporation analyst Bill Peterson. With an increasing
number of applications running within a Web browser, the "underlying operating
system becomes less and less important," he said.
However, Sean Kaldor, also of IDC, was more cautious about using Linux in
smaller devices. "The advantage is zero cost per unit. The disadvantage is that
it's big and will require some engineering" to fit into small devices. The
balance will be in choosing between paying for an operating system already
designed for small devices and paying for the larger memory requirements of
Linux, he said.
Both agreed that bypassing Windows gives AOL an advantage, ensuring more
control over their product, lowering the cost of the device, and improving
AOL's bargaining position in dealings with Microsoft. "They are big enough
where [Microsoft and AOL] are kind of titans of the industry," Kaldor said.
Although AOL declined to comment on the subject, sources said a Linux thin
client would give AOL an inexpensive Internet connection device that would
boot straight into an AOL browser. The user, though, would never need to know
that Linux was underneath.
AOL isn't alone in considering Linux. Consumer electronics powerhouse Sony is
in "initial discussions" with Linux seller Caldera Systems about "how they
can embed Linux into some of their consumer line of products," said Benoy
Tamang, vice president of marketing at Caldera Systems. "Everyone's turning
rabid looking in at the possibilities."
"It makes perfect sense," said Drew Spencer, vice president of engineering
at Caldera Systems, a company that sells Linux. "Linux is at its core an
operating system built for communicating with the Internet. Internet
networking protocols are an intrinsic part of the operating system."
Spencer declined to comment on whether Caldera Systems was working with
AOL on such devices, but he did say "there are a lot of pilot programs right
now" investigating Linux clients. "In eight to 12 months, we'll likely see
some deployments beginning to happen."
AOL has declared its intention to provide access to its services from
non-PC devices through its "AOL Anywhere" plan, a plan that pushes AOL out of
the PC realm where Microsoft enjoys its dominant status.
Linux currently has a stronghold as an operating system used for servers
and programmers' workstations, but Linux leader Linus Torvalds and others
have expressed interest in pushing it into cheaper consumer devices as well
as more powerful servers. At present, The Linux Store and The Computer
Underground are marketing sub-$500 computers, and Corel is developing an
easy-to-use Linux version it says will power sub-$300 computers.
Red Hat could be another key player in AOL's Linux plan, according to one
industry source. AOL inherited Netscape's investment in Red Hat, and the
source said Red Hat and AOL have discussed the idea.
"This is a really compelling idea," said John Stracke, a Linux developer,
former Netscape employee, and now chief scientist at eCal. "[AOL] could do it
pretty easily." With a limited-function box, including a version of Linux
whittled down to only what's needed, "they could do it for about $300,"
Memory a key concern One of the critical issues for such a device is how
much memory it requires. Analysts have noted that in the consumer space,
hardware resources are at a premium, and browsers such as Netscape Navigator
and graphical interfaces such as Xfree86 for Linux take up many megabytes
"If you look at [Netscape] Communicator or Navigator with Java support,
it's quite large, particularly when running the Java virtual machine,"
Spencer said. "It's a function of how small you can make a browser that's
still full functional enough to take advantage of all the new features on the
Spencer said Linux isn't good right now for the smallest of computing
platforms such as 3Com's PalmPilot. But it could be made to work in a
handheld computer such as those currently based on Microsoft Windows CE, he
Linux is good because of price and robustness, said Erich Forler, product
device manager for Corel's forthcoming Linux edition. "When price becomes an
issue, the price of the operating system becomes an issue," he said. John
Wise, chief information officer of The Linux Store, said Windows is second
only to the hard disk as the most expensive component in his company's
Forler worked on Corel's development of the Netwinder Linux machine,
diminutive boxes now under the control of Rebel.com, formerly known as Hardware
Computing Canada. Corel and top Linux seller Red Hat jointly developed a
version of Linux that work on the Netwinder, a computer based on Intel's
NetBox a model? French hardware maker NetGem has taken an interesting
Linux step, deciding to switch from its own operating system to Linux for its
inexpensive set-top boxes for Net access, an arrangement similar to
Microsoft's WebTV. "Linux provides us with a more stable platform, a faster
platform, and a more open platform," said David Ostroff, NetGem's business
Though it doesn't currently support U.S. television standards, NetGem's
NetBox machine seems to match AOL's plans. The NetBox is designed only for
Web browsing, email, and electronic commerce activities such as banking, and
when it's turned on, it shows whatever splash screen the seller desires.
NetGem's NetBox, which is in beta testing now and will be available by the
end of June, has limited hardware, Ostroff said. For example, it doesn't even
have a hard disk. It uses either telephone lines or a cable modem to connect
to the Internet, and because it comes with an Ethernet port, it can be used
to give a PC a high-speed connection as well.
But it does have some serious possible partners. European electronics
giant Grundig, for example, sells a version of the NetGem's current products,
and other European companies distribute the product to home users in exchange
for a monthly Internet access fees, Ostroff said.
"We are confident the Linux box is going to provide the kind of speed and
stability customers are looking for," Ostroff said.
News.com's Dawn Kawamoto contributed to this report.
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