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First US Linux-based Set-top Box Shipping--Since October!--from Coollogic

Jan 10, 2000, 20:13 (2 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by John Wolley)

by John Wolley, Linux Today Silicon Valley correspondent

Coollogic's e-Pilot set-top box, using ON Channel embedded Linux, started shipping in late October.

DALLAS (Irving), Texas, January 11, 2000 - Recent announcements of Linux set-top boxes from Intel, Eagle Wireless, and earlier from NetGem, may have grabbed more headlines, but according to Dan Nilsson, Coollogic's director of market development, "Coollogic is the first US based company to be shipping Linux-based internet access devices to date. In addition, the e-Pilot by Coollogic is the first internet access device to incorporate an embedded Linux operating system with a full version of the Netscape browser utilizing Java applets, SSL and other various plug-in's."

Nilsson said the first e-Pilots shipped in late October, 1999. "Coollogic initially started shipping in quantities in the 100's in quarter 4 of 1999. Due to the high demand for the e-Pilot, Coollogic expects to be shipping 10's of thousands of units by [the end of] quarter 1 of 2000."

In fact, the e-Pilot may be the first Linux-based set-top box to ship, period. Coollogic management was not sure enough of the status of the European NetGem NetBox (also based on Linux) to make this claim. But careful scrutiny of the latest NetGem press release does not make it clear that the NetBox described is actually shipping, and it does not mention Linux at all (that's why you won't find the press release in the Linux Today archives).

e-Pilot spec's
Here's how the e-Pilot is configured/configurable:

  • ON Channel embedded Linux, upgradable by swapping in a new flash ROM
  • 180MHz Cyrix MediaGX cpu (Coollogic plans to migrate future models to a National Semiconductor 200-35MHz Geode cpu)
  • 16-32MB RAM, expandable to 128+
  • Wireless keyboard with built-in mouse
  • Navigator 4.7 browser, customized for the e-Pilot and further customizable to suit customer needs
  • Built-in dial-up modem (33.6/56k), for use if no higher speed connection is available
  • RJ-45 802.3 Ethernet connection
  • 6-16MB flash memory for limited local file storage (browser preferences, bookmarks, cache)
  • Use of either a TV or VGA monitor
  • "Instant on"
When you think "set-top box", you may think cable TV support, but this is not included in the current e-Pilot model. It is included in the NetGem, Intel, and Eagle Wireless boxes, which may be one of the reasons those boxes are taking longer to get to market.

ON Channel embedded Linux
ON Channel embedded Linux is not a generic Linux distro. The version shipping with the e-Pilot has been customized specifically for that device. It will be similarly customized by Coollogic/ON Channel for any other specific device on which a customer wants to use it. It runs with a minimum of 500kB RAM. ON Channel was based in Davis, California, when purchased by Coollogic in early December--the ON Channel staff were scheduled to relocate to Dallas by the end of the year.

Coollogic's senior VP of marketing, Ed Ghafari, says that the use of open source Linux in the e-Pilot has been a big selling point with potential customers. People who, a year ago, barely knew what Linux was, now understand the open source development model and see clear benefits to having a set-top box based on Linux.

Navigator browser, web-based applications
The customized Navigator 4.7 browser is restricted to a single window. Web-based email, not Navigator's companion email client, Messenger, is used.

The browser is the only local application on the e-Pilot. Additional applications, such as the personal calendar and email that Coollogic offers, are all web-based. Any web-based application should be useable, as long as any plug-ins needed are available in a Linux version.

TV image quality is surprisingly good
Poor resolution on a TV set used for a monitor has been a major objection to set-top boxes (see InfoWorld 7/99). The e-Pilot performs exceptionally well with TV sets that support s-video (most sets currently being manufactured) and acceptably well for older TV sets that only support composite input (for a good explanation of the difference, see the PlayStation Galleria FAQ). The e-Pilot boosts the TV's basic image quality by building in anti-flicker, anti-aliasing, and color and image correction.

Why not hand-helds?
When asked about handheld devices, Ghafari made it crystal clear why Coollogic is targeting its initial efforts at the set-top market. Ghafari's market stats show that 50% of US homes have PCs and the growth in this sector has slowed to a crawl. The reason?--people who have not already bought a home computer do not want one, primarily because of the perceived complexity.

That same market research predicts that an estimated 14 million homes in the US will be connected to the net via set-top boxes by the end of 2000, if a much simpler "internet appliance" is available to connect them. In comparison, the hand-held market is much smaller--and it is already dominated by Palm.

Who's buying the e-Pilot?
The ways in which some of Coollogic's customers want to make use of the e-Pilot give an indication of how the internet is changing business. Besides the obvious market in ISPs, Coollogic is initially marketing to "affinity groups", such as real estate investment trusts, multi-level marketing groups, insurance, banking, and educational groups (via PTAs).

Coollogic vice president of business development, Mike Schwieterman, described how real estate investment trusts (which typically own and operate a number of large apartment complexes) want to use it in competition for tenants. Landlords could offer it as an amenity to help attract tenants, and then use it as a communications link between tenants and management, an advertising vehicle (local specials offered to tenants), and an aid in helping a tenant locate another apartment in another one of the group's complexes, perhaps even in another city.

Deals in the works
Most of Coollogic's partners are not ready to go public with their e-Pilot plans. According to Coollogic president Rob Wood, Coollogic is "working closely" with National Semiconductor and an announcement is close enough that he was willing to name them in this Linux Today story. Other customers evaluating the e-Pilot include a major real estate investment trust and multiple ISPs. Wood said that one ISP is "very close" to making an announcement.

For potential customers considering the e-Pilot, Coollogic is offering a complete "end-to-end solution" that includes server-based email, calendar, encryption, wireless access protocol (WAP), advertising, instant messaging, and e-commerce servers to support connected e-Pilots. Coollogic even offers financing assistance.

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