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Squeeze Linux into Xbox, win $200,000

A software development project aimed at getting the Linux operating system to run on Microsoft's Xbox is offering a big incentive for would-be developers.

A software development project aimed at getting the Linux operating system to run on Microsoft's Xbox is offering a larger incentive for would-be developers--to the tune of $200,000.

The goal of the Xbox Linux Project is to find a "simple and completely legal" way of running Linux on the Xbox gaming machine, according to the project's Web site. The prize money was donated by an anonymous source, known only to the project's leaders.

Xbox Linux Project has divided the job into two subprojects, each garnering a total of $100,000. Project A involves getting Linux to run on a hardware-modified Xbox. The largest award in this subproject, for $55,000, will go to developers who get an IBM PC-like BIOS (basic input-output system) to run on the machine, allowing it to boot Linux from a hard disk.

Project B will be to eliminate the need for hardware modification by developing a CD-ROM that will allow any Xbox to boot Linux.

An awards committee will decide how the funds are distributed; all contributors to a successful project should receive some compensation, according to the Web site. The contest ends Dec. 31, 2002.

The Xbox project isn't the first attempt at getting the Linux operating system into a gaming console. Sony has released a Linux kit for PlayStation 2, which includes a keyboard and other peripherals as well as the requisite software.

Xbox is a tempting target for Linux enthusiasts, however, because its components are almost completely PC-compatible. This means that, in theory, Linux software designed for Intel-based PCs should be able to run on a machine with only minor modifications. However, Xbox presents a few challenges, such as an altered BIOS that will only allow approved Microsoft code to run.

Project manager Michael Steil emphasized that the challenge is designed to be completely legal, and programmers with inside knowledge of the Xbox code are requested not to participate.

"We do not use any non-licensed software for development, such as the Xbox SDK (software development kit)," Steil wrote on the Xbox Linux Project site. "Reverse engineering of the Xbox system software is only done in compliance with corresponding local laws."

Steil said that he and other project leaders know the identity of the prize donor but have been asked not to reveal the person's name.

Microsoft has voiced concerns about pirated software running on Xbox. Several modification chips for Xbox, designed specifically to allow the console to run pirated games, have appeared on the market. Some technology, such as Enigmah-X's mod chips, have been discontinued.

Besides operating as a desktop PC, the Xbox Linux Project developers hope to use the open-source Linux kernel as a basis for Xbox media player software.

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