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

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.