February 19, 2003 12:01 PM PST
Xbox Linux group seeks Microsoft seal
In an open letter sent to Microsoft, the organizers of the Xbox Linux Project requested that the software giant "sign" its Xbox version of the open-source operating sytem.
Microsoft's electronic signature would allow the software to run on an unmodified Xbox. Currently, an Xbox must be outfitted with a "mod chip"--a gray-market add-on that overrides security features in the console--to run Linux or any other unapproved software. Microsoft has pursued a variety of legal and technical means to thwart mod chips, on the grounds that the devices aid software piracy.
"We would strongly prefer that our users did not have this extra complex step of opening their Xbox and fitting extra circuitry before they can run Linux or other programs," the letter says.
"Because of Microsoft's deliberate design choices in terms of restricting the software that may run on an unmodified Xbox to 'Microsoft approved only,' coming to ask Microsoft, and presumably paying Microsoft, is currently the only way we can get our port of the GNU/Linux OS to interoperate with an unmodified box," the letter says. "Unkind people might characterize this as a second deliberate monopoly created by Microsoft even as they were being found guilty of creating an illegal monopoly in operating systems software."
A Microsoft representative said that the security features and specialized operating system used in the Xbox were necessary to protect against software piracy. "It's designed the way it is to protect the (intellectual property) of our game developers and our partners," the representative said.
Hackers have been tinkering with the Xbox since the day it went on the market, inspired by the PC-based design of the console, which uses a standard Intel Pentium processor and other common PC components. Programmers have developed media players, software emulators and other unauthorized programs for the console, along with several versions of Linux and affiliated open-source software.
Michael Robertson, founder of Linux company Lindows, is sponsoring a $200,000 contest to bring Linux to the console. The first half of the contest has already been won, but the second part of the challenge--running Linux on an unmodified Xbox--is still up for grabs.
The Xbox Linux Project letter notes that Microsoft could score some extra cash by signing the group's software. "You may not be aware that Project B of the Xbox Linux prize includes up to $100,000 for a person or company which allows Xbox Linux to boot on an unmodded box," the letter says. "Microsoft will be eligible to apply for an award under this scheme if they approve Xbox Linux as a normal Xbox program."
British programmer Andy Green, one of the organizers of the Xbox Linux Project, said the letter is a sincere attempt to sway Microsoft.
"The letter is a genuine request for Microsoft to consider allowing Xbox Linux to run on the Xbox without discriminatory extra effort needed on the part of the user," he said in an e-mail interview.
"We decided to actually ask Microsoft because up until now we have had zero contact with them, despite trying to reach out once before, as we describe in the letter," Green said. "We can see from feedback that it is being widely seen as a brave attempt at a lost cause, but we're not so sure. Nobody knows for sure what Microsoft's response to us and our concept of a Microsoft-approved Linux will be until we ask and get a reply."
Green said he and other project participants hope Microsoft may become a little more obliging in light of recent antitrust actions.
"Xbox Linux's situation is plenty more discriminated against than Netscape with their Navigator browser and Sun's Java," he said. "These guys could at least run their stuff on the PCs without us having to reverse-engineer their cryptographic locks and the user having to fit new equipment to it."