Linux penguin graces Xbox

A German programmer is the first to make a Linux application for the Xbox without using Microsoft tools. It may only draw Linux mascot "Tux" on the start-up screen, but it's a start.

Matthew Broersma Special to CNET News
3 min read
A German programmer says he has made the first step toward running the Linux operating system on Microsoft's Xbox game console--without running into any legal entanglements.

Michael Steil, a German programmer, has built an application called linuxpreview, which simply flashes the Xbox LED (light-emitting diode) and draws a penguin on the Xbox start-up screen, along with the message "Xbox Linux Coming Soon!" and a link to the Xbox Linux Web site. However, it is touted as the first application to run on Xbox without using tools from the official Xbox Software Development Kit (SDK), and is the first step toward turning the Xbox into a Linux-based PC.

Steil is the head of the Xbox Linux Project, which is marshalling volunteers to figure out a way to run Linux--which directly competes with Microsoft's Windows operating system--on the console without using any of Microsoft's proprietary development tools. In some ways, the project should be simple, since Xbox is built from hardware that is identical or similar to a standard Intel-based PC.

The first barrier to overcome, however, is Xbox's BIOS (basic input/output system), which differs from that of a PC. In order to start up, Linux needs a bootloader, and the existing varieties all depend on software such as a PC BIOS, or the basic operating system, DOS. The trick, according to Steil, is to figure out enough about the Xbox's BIOS to write a Linux bootloader.

His new program doesn't yet accomplish this, but it's a start, Steil said. "Linuxpreview is a small application, and it's the first one, which shows that it is possible to write an application that has not been developed with Microsoft's SDK and does not contain any Microsoft code," he said in an e-mail interview.

"It would be trivial to write an application showing a penguin logo on the screen which has been written using Microsoft's development tools every regular Xbox game developer has access to. We cannot use this software of course, so it's more difficult to write software that 'does something' on top of the Xbox system software," Steil added.

He said that linuxpreview can be used as a template for the upcoming bootloader and other applications. However, once Linux has booted, other applications will have to deal only with the Linux environment and will not have to deal directly with the Xbox BIOS, according to Steil.

The current application runs on an Xbox with modified hardware that lets the console run non-Xbox applications. Ultimately, though, the Xbox Linux developers are aiming to get Linux up and running with a software-only method. An anonymous donor recently offered $200,000 for various stages in the Xbox Linux project, with $100,000 for finding a software-only Linux solution.

The necessity of hardware modification isn't just inconvenient; it can also be expensive for programmers who are spending their spare cash on the consoles. "I now have my third Xbox; two were broken because of my hardware research," said Enrico Kern, another German programmer working on the project.

On the other hand, the Linux enthusiasts are well aware that, according to analyst estimates, Microsoft is losing $125 or more for every console it sells. "We are no friends of Microsoft," Kern said.

Linux is based on an open-source license, beloved by hackers because it allows them to modify and redistribute the operating system's underlying source code, as long as the resulting software is itself open source.

ZDNet U.K.'s Matthew Broersma reported from London.