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Linux Everywhere: Will Consumers Embrace the Penguin?

Direct from the Consumer Electronics Show (CES)

January 10, 2000

A year ago the thought of Linux entering the consumer market was at best a distant dream, one not shared by the computer industry or even the majority of Linux users.

But things change quickly, and a visit to the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held Jan. 6-10 in Las Vegas, showed that while Linux still has a negligible presence in the consumer world, things are on the upswing.

First, there was TiVo's announcement that it will offer, in conjunction with Liberate and AOL TV, interactive TV services on a Linux platform. TiVo is one of several companies fighting it out in the Digital Video Recording (DVR) space. TiVo boxes, sold through traditional consumer channels and retailers like Best Buy and Circuit City, act both as interactive television guides showing complete schedules and digital VCRs storing programming on a hard disk. TiVo also acts as a smart navigator to the vast sea programming; enter favorite programs and TiVo will suggest related ones.

The deal with Liberate should not be underestimated. As we enter a broadband era, there's a rush to corner certain parts of the market; one of these corners is set-top boxes, which manage the flow of data from the pipeline to the TV, and potentially to PCs as well. Both Microsoft and Sony have announced plans for this market.

And Liberate is poised to be a major player here. Investors in Liberate include America Online, Comcast, Cox Communications, General Instrument, Lucent Technologies, MediaOne, Nintendo, Oracle, Rogers Communications, Sega, Sony and Sun. The Liberate software sits above the operating system and provides electronic mail, chat and Web browsing on a rather sophisticated client/server arrangement. In an interesting twist, the Linux portion of the system will serve as the client side, rather than the server side.

Although this may change because of AOL's merger with Time-Warner, the plan is to bring TiVo and Liberate technologies to specific markets, including AOL TV, by the end of the year.

Secondly there was Intel's showing at CES, underlining the company's commitment to the consumer market. You might be surprised at how active Intel is in the consumer field; despite being one of the world's largest processor vendors, it also provides a slew of networking and end-user products.

As part of this commitment to the consumer world, Intel is preparing a line of Web appliances based on Linux and the consumer-oriented Celeron processor. These appliances won't be directly sold to consumers, but rather to middlemen (ISPs, e-commerce retailers, et al.) who will brand and position the Web appliances for their needs. For instance, you might see a Nordstrom Web appliance configured to connect directly to their Web site. Intel will charge around $300 for each appliance; ultimate costing will depend on the middlemen.

Finally--and this falls under the heading of gossip, rather than news--a visit to the America Online (AOL) booth yielded a pleasant surprise: development of a Linux version of AOL software is underway. "Don't quote me on this, but we are working on a Linux version," said an AOL marketing minion, who requested anonymity. "We've received a lot of requests for one."

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