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Caldera adding Linux to set-top boxes

Caldera Thin Clients will add Linux because it can run on different chips and because the next generation of set-top boxes clears the memory hurdle.

Caldera Thin Clients has decided to augment its television set-top box software with a Linux product, the company's chief executive said today.

Caldera Thin Clients, the sister company See related story: The new world order to Linux seller Caldera Systems, will add Linux because it can be translated to run on many different chips and because the next generation of TV set-top boxes will come with sufficient memory to run the upstart operating system, said Bryan Sparks, founder of Caldera and the chief of Caldera Thin Clients.

Caldera will write only the software for the systems, leaving the hardware up to its manufacturing partners.

Though he declined to name those partners, Sparks said they include PC manufacturers as well as consumer electronics manufacturers. One partner made a bid to have a place in America Online's ambitious TV plans, but lost the bid, Sparks said. AOL's TV set-top plans could include Linux, although the company refused to comment on that subject. (See related story)

The use of Linux gets around licensing fees a company would have to pay to use somebody else's operating system, such as Microsoft's Windows CE, which has become a higher-profile option as a result of Microsoft's $5 billion investment in AT&T. However, analysts and Linux developers have said there's still work to be done getting Linux, a graphical interface, and a browser to fit into smaller boxes with tight memory constraints.

Caldera Thin Clients has got around this restriction by stripping down Linux, avoiding the use of the "X Windows" user interface, and using its own WebSpyder browser, which fits into a single megabyte of RAM, Sparks said. "Moore's Law has caught up with us and allowed us to adopt a more full-featured substrate underneath," he said.

Caldera began looking into Linux about a year ago, when several manufacturers approached the company about writing software for a system based on Intel's StrongARM chip, Sparks said.

The StrongARM is the basis for the diminutive NetWinder Linux computer line developed by Corel. Red Hat, the dominant Linux seller at present, helped to port Linux to the computers.

But interest in StrongARM "cooled for us," and all the deals that have been signed are with Intel-compatible chips, Sparks said, notably Cyrix's MediaGX chip, which combines the instruction set of Intel's Pentium chips with graphics and audio capabilities. In addition, Caldera is "working closely" with AMD and is favorably impressed with the SC400 chip as a means of making ultra-small computers.

The company also has requests to get its software working on Motorola PowerPC chips, he said.

Caldera Thin Clients' WebSpyder supports version 3.2 of HTML--the coding language that underlies the Web--including features such as Javascript, cookies, and frames. In addition, the company intends to add a Java virtual machine so the system run Java programs, Sparks said.

Doesn't require hard disk
The software doesn't require a hard disk, Sparks said, but instead relies on flash memory (memory that retains its contents when turned off) and ordinary memory. The software also comes with display technology to make sure the system will work on TV displays.

Caldera Thin Clients will release its Linux modifications to the open source community, Sparks said. "Caldera has never had the strategy of challenging the open source initiative," he said.

However, drivers that Linux use to store information in flash memory will remain proprietary, he said. "We do have intellectual property there," Sparks said.

The Caldera system is similar to the NetBox from French manufacturer NetGem, which also uses flash memory and has also switched to Linux. However, NetGem's products currently only work with European TV standards.

The Caldera Thin Clients plan is designed to be offered with a browser customized for whatever company sells it. "We're not in the portal business, like WebTV and Microsoft," he said.

Meanwhile, the DOS side of the company's business is still growing; DOS is far from dead, Sparks said. DR-DOS sales come from areas such as handheld computers, cash registers, bootable CD-ROMs, and rescue disks used to help users restart their computers.

"We sell a ton of DOS every month. The Caldera Thin Clients business is profitable on DOS revenues alone," Sparks said. "We have our little niche, and people know about us. I just don't see it ending for at least another three years or so."

The company's software, including its current DR-DOS-based version, is designed to be upgraded automatically by a central administrator. That upgrade could even include swapping out the operating system, he said.

Aside from its set-top ambitions, Caldera Thin Clients is in a deal with an undisclosed manufacturer to provide software for a router that would connect home or small-business networks to a high-speed Internet connection, Sparks said.