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Weekly Column

Keeping the Peace: Bob builds a video server for the minivan.

Status: [CLOSED] comments (80)
By Robert X. Cringely

The video player died in our minivan a few weeks ago, sending my kids into a death spiral of Wiggles withdrawal. In retrospect, it would probably have been better never to have the video player, but it seduced us with the promise of hypnotically transfixed children who would never again ask, "Are we there yet?" I had to have it back, only better. So I built a video server for the minivan.

What I wanted for the van was the equivalent of what we had already working at home, where MythTV running on a $300 Linux box stores every episode of Arthur, Dora the Explorer, Dragon Tales, Rolie Polie Olie, Cyberchase (my son Channing's favorite), Jimmy Neutron (my favorite), and many other programs -- more than 500 shows in all. It's squeaky-clean content in every sense, including the best of all -- no peanut butter fingerprints. I just had to find a way to move this capability to the car for almost no money.

My output device of choice was the Sony PlayStation Portable or PSP -- a handheld game system with a widescreen LCD that plays movies beautifully. We had one, thanks to a grandmother who had no idea that two-year-olds don't get such things for their birthdays, and when they do get them they try to flush them down the toilet.

Though not advertised as such, the PSP is EXTREMELY water-resistant.

Cars are hostile environments for computers. I wrote an entire column once on why we don't have hard drives in cars (it's in this week's links), so I knew that for a server I'd need a hardened, yet cheap, box, which I found in the Norhtec MicroClient Jr. from Thailand. Because of enlightened government computing policy, Thailand has the cheapest non-Microsoft PCs in the world and the MicroClient Jr. is among the least expensive. In volume it sells for $90, but I paid $120 plus an extra $70 for WiFi capability. I might have saved the $70 and used a USB WiFi adapter I had lying around, but the box has only one usable USB port (the front two were diasbled on my unit) and I wanted that for storage.

For $190 I had a diskless, fanless, completely silent PC with a Via processor and 128 megs of RAM. To this I added a copy of Puppy Linux, which is a very good lightweight distribution you can boot from a CD, though in the MicroClient Jr. I used a CompactFlash card from an old digital camera as the boot drive. For the data drive I used a huge four-gig USB flash drive that came from who knows where: I don't recall buying it, but it was sitting on the shelf.

This is not a very ambitious project, really. The MicroClient Jr. is a little smaller than a Mac Mini and can run on 12 volt DC, so I mounted it under the driver's seat, stealing power from the seat motors. The USB flash drive is about the size of a pack of cigarettes, if you remember what that looks like, and I used Velcro to stick it to the side of the MicroClient Jr. The little PC runs fine as a server, and there are many open source programs for transcoding almost any video into the H.264 or MPEG-4 formats preferred by the PSP. The PSP already has WiFi capability and the components are never more than four feet apart. Best of all, I was able to put 53 shows on the data drive.

Clearly this is a product someone should be making and selling, probably Sony. If we can get Grandma to pop for a second PSP or even a third, the server should be able to keep them all running just fine. Remember, no decoding takes place in the server, so only bits are being schlepped. And since I've had the system running, not one kid has asked "Are we there yet?"

When we shortly replace the old van, I'll take the server with me, of course, and put it in the next vehicle. I can see some real advantages to this solution, which is inconspicuous, doesn't block any mirrors, and generally keeps two hands per kid occupied, which limits my boys to kicking each other.

In other news, Microsoft's Zune is out and, as predicted, hardly anyone is taking it as a serious threat to Apple. But if it isn't a threat to Apple, then why do we keep writing about it? To a certain extent we do so because anything from Microsoft gets a lot of press, but some pundits are convinced there is another shoe to drop -- some deal or feature with which Microsoft will turn this sow's ear into a silk purse. I don't see this as likely FOR THE FIRST ZUNE VERSION. Apple has established a 6-9 month iPod product cycle. If Microsoft hopes to continue the trend of doing the job right the third time around, then the clock is ticking toward that time, which will be 12-18 months from now. THIS Zune is a placeholder meant to start the clock ticking at best. Two Zunes from now is when the game really begins.

Finally, faced with the prospect of an open source Java clone coming from the Apache Foundation, Sun Microsystems made the bold move this week of making most of its own Java system code open source. What's really surprising is that they put Java under the Free Software Foundation's General Public License, which is great news for developers but not immediately clear why it should be good news for Sun. Many companies that dabble in open source, like Sun, Apple and others, frequently tweak their licenses and rarely just throw the code under a blanket GPL. So why did Sun?

Because this isn't your father's GPL, that's why. Sun put Java under GPL v.2, which gives the original licensor some unique rights. Say you extend Java, under GPLv2 the way to give your improvements to the world is by giving them back to Sun. Or, if you'd like to keep those changes to yourself, it requires negotiating a non-GPL license with Sun, which means you'll have to PAY Sun to USE YOUR OWN CODE.

Under GPLv2 Sun benefits significantly more than it would have under the original GPL. Sun controls the code, it controls forking, and anyone who wants a special deal has to pay. For a product that was generally given away, anyway, going with GPLv2 will probably make Sun more money -- probably a LOT more money -- than the company would have made by keeping the source closed.

Now that Sun is losing less than $1 million per day, every penny counts you know.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (80)

MS Zune is a mediocre product at best. But as Mr. Cringely pointed out, MS's goals involve market entry at this point. Only after several version will we be able to see what kind of clout the Zune receives from the buying public. But my guess is MS is working on a portable gaming system that will include video AND music capabilities. The Zune is just their first "prototype" into the hand held arena.

zak | Nov 22, 2006 | 10:40AM

I am mystified as to why Cringely presents GPL v2 as something new and/or revolutionary. "Not your father's GPL?" GPL v2 was released in 1991, two years after GPL v1, and I doubt that anything meaningful has been released under v1 in the past decade.

d p | Nov 29, 2006 | 7:54PM

The GPL v2 does not require negotiating a separate licence for adding your own code. You only need to negotiate a new licence if you can't/don't want to comply with the GPL's terms. As far as modifications go - the GPL requires you to share your changes if you are distributing a modified product. In other words - you either ship the modified product (your code + Sun's) under the same GPL licence, or you don't distribute it (i.e. - and in-house version), or you negotiate a different license. Note this only applies if you're working on the Java JVM code itself - not on Java programs running on top.

Doug | Nov 30, 2006 | 1:29PM