Back in 1999 a compny called Netpliance came out with the network appliance iOpener. They were selling this as a simplified way to get Internet services (dial-up) where you bought their device and you got the basics of Internet service, with simple access to the web and email. They sold their device for $99, though the hardware itself was costing them 3 or 4 times that amount. It was a loss leader where they were counting on making up the money with monthly subscription fees.
Lo-and-behold, someone figures out that this device is nothing but a regular old x86 computer (laptop), with an integrated LCD screen, and that there were very few obstacles to putting a normal operating system on it, GNU/Linux being the most popular. So you could get a $400 computer with LCD screen for $99 if you were willing to put a little work into it. This was the beginning of the end for Netpliance's business model: a common theme back in the dot com bubble days.
What ensued over the next few years was an escalation of Netpliance adding more and more protections to prevent it from being hacked and the hackers always finding ways around whatever was their latest protection scheme. Most of the changes in the models entailed variations of the BIOS chip (design, functionality and the amount of epoxy they used to afix it on the motherboard).
When the first stories came out about being able to get this hackable hardware for $99, two friends and myself contemplated chipping in to get one to play around with it. We never did pull the trigger on this though. A couple years later, another friend I used to work with got a job at Netpliance, which happened to be just down the road from my house. By this time, the company had changed their name to Tipping Point and had a new business model making internet security appliances (firewalls). During the dot com days in Austin when they started, they were funded with a lot of cash, but unlike most of the companies, they actually showed some fiscal responsibility and had plenty left to take the business in a different direction.
When my friend started working there, he'd mentioned that they still had a bunch of iOpener's lying around the office, so I asked what the feasibility of acquiring one might be. He said it should be no problem to get one, and a few months later I had one in my hands (this was now 2004). A litle while after that I found some time to spend hacking it. I was thinking of using it as a simple web terminal for the kitchen, with some added ability to play MP3 files.
My first task was to find out what version of the iOpener I had, since that would dictate how hard or easy it was going to be to put this to some use. Booting the machine up gives the hints and it turns out I had "V5", dated 7/7/2000. In the first versions, you could just hit the right sequence of keys during boot and it would dump you into a root shell and you could do all the work from there. EWith the next generation versions you would have to re-flash the BIOS, but then could be on your way. By the time V5 rolled around, there was no way any of these tricks would work. The only solution was to completely replace the BIOS chip itself, and I luckily found someone out there in the Internets that was still selling them: about $25 each.
The next task is to set things up so the iOpener could be hooked to a hard drive. By default, the iOpener booted from 16 MB of flash memory (it had 32 MB of regular SODIMM memory). You could either re-flash that memory with a bootable image from the disk, or you could hook up a hard drive permanently and always boot from that. To put in a full-time hard drive was more expensive and tricky since you had to get a small laptop drive (expensive) and a special mounting bracket (more money or more work). You also would need to add a fan to cool it down and there's not a whole lot of extra space inside the case, so it winds up looking a bit Frankenstein-ish. I decided to just re-flash the memory with a compact bootable linux distribution, though I still needed to temporarily hook up a hard drive to get the image into the flash memory.
All of this work of installing a new BIOS chip and attaching a hard drive required getting at the motherboard. The iOpener is essentially laptop guts mounted behind the LCD screen, so if you open it up, you find a fairly standard x86 laptop motherboard. However, as part of Netpliance's anti-hacking measures, the back cover was held on with tamper-proof "star-type" screws. What does that mean? It means you just need to buy a special screwdriver to make them tamper-able: As they say: if you outlaw special tools, only outlaws will have special tools. After removing the screws, I used a dremel tool to cut slots in the heads so I could use a regular flat-head screwdriver from then onwards.
Being a normal x86 laptop, the iOpener had IDE connector pins for a laptop disk drive. I had two issues to deal with here. The first was that I was going to hook up a normal IDE drive, which meant I needed an adapter to convert the full-size IDE connector to the smaller version used on laptops. The second issue was the tricky way Netpliance reversed each pair of pins in the IDE connection. There were folks selling these special reversed pin IDE cables, but I decided to have a go at making one myself, and enlisted a friend to help with the delicate task of stripping apart a ribbon cable and resoldering every pair of pins reversed. The picture at right shows the final result, which actually worked the first time.
I needed to find a suitable GNU/Linux distribution which needed to be small (fit into 16MB) but support networking, NFS, sound, etc. There were a few candidates but I settled on the Midori distribution (M4I) that had a prebuilt image for the iOpener hardware. I grabbed an old disk drive and put the downloaded image onto it.
After connecting the hard drive, connecting a fan, propping it all up and then installing the new BIOS, I followed these directions to get the iOpener to boot off the hard disk:
Boot up to CMOS setup (hit DEL from the moment you see print on the screen) and select CHIPSET FEATURES SETUP; SET bank X/X Dram timing to 8 ns; SET SDRAM cycle length to 2 Go to BIOS SETUP FEATURES and select BOOT SEQUENCE to C only Go to STANDARD CMOS SETUP and select both C and D drive to : AUTO with their mode : AUTO Save & exitAfter rebooting, the iopener booted off the hard drive and then I ran the following command to get the bootable image into the iOpeners flashable memory.:
dd if=m41-*img of=/dev/hdb bs=512This all worked suprisingly well with few hiccups.
The next major task was to get the iOpener on the network. It had a modem built into it (with its RJ-11 jack) for its main dial-up purposes, but no RJ-45 connector or on-board NIC to speak of. The only way to add a a network device was via the USB port it had. There were plenty of USB-based wired and wireless solutions out there at the time, but very, very few of the options were compatible with the drivers built into the chosen GNU/Linux distribution.
The M4I (Midori) distribution included the wlan-ng Prism driver and I saw a few recommendations out there for compatible devices. I first tried a wireless solution (Netgear MA111), but I could not get that to work. I then tried a wired solution in the Linksys USB200M, but I could not get that to work either. A friend of mine suggested using the D-Link DSB-H3ETX, which is a USB hub, but also sports an RJ-45 connector with full NIC capabilities. This did the trick and I could get the iOpener onto my LAN.
The iOpener has a fairly decent sound chip, but was driving two super-crappy internal speakers. To play MP3s would require reasonable sound quality. Next step was to install a proper speaker-out jack on the iOpener so I could hook up decent quality external speakers. Exactly where to hook these up was a bit of an issue since the various versions of the iOpener had changed things around the sound chip, but I eventually tracked down the correct places I needed to solder in the wires. It was an Analog Devices AC97 (AD1881A) sound chip and I was able to locate the schematics to find the soldering points. I was able to make a fairly neat job of installing the jack so it looked almost like it was designed to have a speaker jack.
I then went to the iOpener and set up NFS to mount my home servers MP3 collection. You can see the iOpener running the XMMS player on the right. You don't see any songs there since I did not have it networked when I took this picture. I also chose to install the Opera web browse, since it was the most efficient and smallest footprint option out there at the time.
The iOpener actually had a PS/2 port hidden behind a cover on the back, so with the proper PS/2 splitter I could hook up a proper mouse. The iOpener keyboard had buttons for mouse control that were horrible to use. The LCD screen was also of fairly bad quality with a very noticably slow refresh rate and lag. Here's more detailed spec on the screen:
Screen resolution: 800x600 Video card: trident Cyberblade /:7d (trident X driver) hsync: 31.5-57.0 vfreq: 50-70 depth: 16 bit