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Penguin-powered iPod? Sort of

An engineer manages to get Apple's portable MP3 player to run basic parts of the uClinux version of the Linux operating system. But it's only a rough start, he says.

One engineer has managed to squeeze the iPod into a penguin suit, although the outfit doesn't quite fit yet.

In recent weeks, computer enthusiast Bernard Leach has been able to get Apple's digital music player to run basic parts of the uClinux version of the Linux operating system. However, in running Linux, the device sacrifices many of the iPod's key features.

Leach's Linux-equipped iPod can play audio or display simple graphics, but it can't use the iPod's scroll wheel or remote control, and it can't access the FireWire port--the iPod's only means of exchanging data with other devices. And although the Linux-equipped iPod can play audio, even its MP3 playback doesn't live up to expectations, Leach said in an e-mail interview.

"What you are looking at now is the very beginnings of something that could be quite useful," Leach said. As for why he did it, Leach said there were "a number of reasons, but mainly because it (is) there."

Indeed, hackers have added new or different features to a variety of devices, such as Microsoft's Xbox, 3Com's ill-fated Audrey and the late Netpliance i-Opener.

In theory, Leach says, an iPod running Linux should be able to do anything a PC running Linux can. However, Leach concedes, the current incarnation is far from that reality.

"What can it do well? Well, other than run the kernel, at this point not a lot, unfortunately," Leach said.

But Leach has high hopes for a penguin-powered iPod.

"Down the road you may see a complete alternate firmware for the iPod. But in the short term I would expect to see more specific applications," Leach said. "One that I am looking forward to is being able to dump images from my digital camera to the iPod for temporary storage while on the road."

As to whether he is treading on dangerous legal ground by tapping into what Apple says is a closed platform, Leach said he doesn't think so.

"I am not aware of any legal issues in using this software," Leach says on the Web site he set up to outline his project. "Having said that, I am not a lawyer, nor could I possibly know all the laws that may apply in your particular locale, so if you have any concerns, either contact someone who would know, or don't use the software."

Leach, who was born in Australia but now lives in Germany, said his first goal was to tap in to the existing operating system to add games or something, not add Linux.

"Unfortunately, after quite some effort, I kept running into brick walls with no real success," he said.