Will you buy the Kinect?

yes, at launch or during the holiday season
maybe later


Crave Online


Xbox-Scene Interview with Michael Steil/Mist (Xbox-Linux Team // xbox-linux.org)


Xbox-Scene:: Could you introduce yourself? (your age/country, coding experience, projects you are working on, what you are doing in the team, what do you do in 'real life', ...)

Michael Steil:: I'm 24,84 years old, I live in Germany and I study computer science. I have always been most interested in 8 bit machines, embedded systems and operating systems. For the Xbox Linux Project, which I am maintaining, I mainly contributed to the bootloader code and to the kernel, and I took part in all that hacking. Besides that, I am currently coordinating the Linux port to the GameCube: http://www.gc-linux.org/


Xbox-Scene:: What made you get into computers?

Michael Steil:: In 1989, when I was 10, I wanted a gaming console, possibly some cheap Atari - and I got a C64 with 3 games included. Soon I was told that no additional game modules were produced any longer, but I had to buy a floppy drive for more games. I got my Floppy drive, but the excellent users manual of the C64 taught me BASIC, so I shifted my interest to programming. In 1990, I learnt assembly and in 1991, I got a 386; but I was still in love with the C64, and I considered it my main computer for many years.


Xbox-Scene:: What inspired you to bring Linux to the Xbox?

Michael Steil:: The idea to run Linux on an Xbox is quite obvious. You have a Celeron PC, with Ethernet, DVD and a hard disk, why not use it as a PC? Actually I had worked with Linux on the dbox2 (a German digital television set-top box for pay TV) as well as with Linux on the Dreamcast just before.


Xbox-Scene:: Did you learn alot during the development on Xbox?

Michael Steil:: Definitely. I learnt a lot about the Linux kernel, about the PC architechture, as well as about hardware security and its weaknesses. I can only recommend any computer person to have a look at a project like this.


Xbox-Scene:: Not everyone was here since the early beginning, so could you tell us a bit about the history of Xbox-Linux: How and when did the project originate, and who started it? What major achievements did the team reach? How many developers are currently working on it?

Michael Steil:: I officially started the project on SourceForge.net on May 23rd 2002, beginning with lots of hacking documentation, but no code. On July 6th, we had the first code running on the Xbox, and on August 13th, the Linux kernel booted for the first time. On October 6th, we released the first full Linux distribution for the Xbox, including a KDE and Gnome GUI.
Until then, you still needed a modchip in order to run Linux.
2003 was the year of the software-hacks. On March 31st, a method was released to run Linux by loading a modified savegame from within "007 Agent Under Fire". On July 4th, another method was released to run Linux from hard disk, without a modchip. This lead to the MechInstaller release on August 11th: Now anyone could easily install Linux (and still run games) on an Xbox that has never been opened.
Ed's latest Linux distribution, Xebian 1.0, has been release on December 24th, 2003.
More than 30 people have contributed to the project so far, but there have never been more than 5-10 active developers at a time. This is also about the current number.


Xbox-Scene:: The Xbox-Linux project has always kept itself separated from 'the rest' of the Xbox development. Is this to keep the Xbox-Linux project away from XDK/MS-code based Xbox software and any 'commercial' involvements?

Michael Steil:: The Xbox Linux Project has always been doing two things: The development of Linux on the Xbox, as well as finding holes in the Xbox security system. Therefore it is unlike any other single project in the homebrew scene, because development and security research never took place in the same team anywhere else. And this is what makes our legal position difficult: There is no legal problem with Linux development, and there is none with security research, if the results are not used for piracy.
The problem is that being close with our hacking efforts to the homebrew scene always means being close to piracy. I do not imply that homebrew coders are pirates, no, but in order to run homebrew code, you have to do pretty much the same as in order to run copies. So, opening our results for the homebrew scene always also meant opening it for piracy.
The difficult legal position because of our security research made it imperative to be as far away from illegal activities as possible.
I hope you understand my point - we do not think that we're better or more legal. We think that we're quite alike the rest of the scene. But we had to separate.


Xbox-Scene:: Were you surprised by the success and number of people interested? When searching for 'xbox' on google xbox-linux comes 4th in the list right after xbox.com, microsoft.com and IGN ... I think that's impressive for non-official development to place yourself before so many big 'official' review/games websites.

Michael Steil:: Yes, I was really impressed by the expertise of people that joined the project. These are all excellent developers. So many different people, everyone with his own special subject.
That we're number 4 on Google is really impressive as well, yes. If I were a businessman, I would say, that this is the proof that we are popular among our customers, and that we will have an even higher revenue in Q1/2004... well, I don't think this is all our effort. It's Microsoft. They sell a PC for 199 EUR, and a bunch of hackers offer a simple method to use it to its fullest. So I wonder why anyone should ever want to play a game on it anyway?


Xbox-Scene:: Do you have any idea about the number of people using Linux on their Xbox?

Michael Steil:: Our Mandrake 9.0 port for the Xbox has 200,000 downloads within not much more than half a year. Xebian and GentooX downloads are hard to count, because we can't know which downloads are new users and which ones are just updates. With about 15 million Xboxes out there, we might have a share of 3% - doesn't sound *so* much any more...


Xbox-Scene:: What have been the toughest challenges so far?

Michael Steil:: Booting the kernel for the first time definitely was a tough challenge; we had to build quite some custom hardware in order to achieve that. Also, the v1.1 hack was pretty tough, as well as the 007 and dashboard hacks. All these tasks required a lot of research and a lot of tools or hardware devices.


Xbox-Scene:: Can you update us a bit about the 'Xbox Linux Multimedia Project'? Will this become a legal alternative to XBMP/C?

Michael Steil:: We hope so. The user mode application of the Multimedia Project already runs very well on Xebian; what we need now is a minimal Linux system to host it, so that people can just run the "Xbox Linux Media Player" without ever having to worry about Linux. We are somewhat short in human resources for this at the moment, so if anyone wants to contribute, you're welcome!


Xbox-Scene:: In the early days there was Mandrake, once even a small SUSE distro and later a Slackware port on Xbox - but these are no longer available/updated. Are there projects to port new distros besides Debian/Gentoo/Dyne:Bolic in the future?

Michael Steil:: None of us can work on Xbox Linux full time, so there are some sub-projects that evolve slowly. Someone from the team has plans to port Fedora (former RedHat) - again, if you want to help, your welcome!


Xbox-Scene:: We have seen news of a Splinter Cell gamesave exploit or maybe even a 'SplinterInstaller' (similar to the MechInstaller) showed at 20C3. Could you tell us a bit more about this new release? When can we expect it?

Michael Steil:: Splinter Cell comes with one of the Christmas bundles, so many people should already have it or be able to get cheap used ones. The process is the same as for MechInstaller, you need the savegame and the game; this way you can easily modify the Xbox for dual boot (games/Linux) without opening.
The SplinterCell Installer is in beta testing stage and will be released shortly.


Xbox-Scene:: Xbox-Linux is one of the teams that has been activily searching for new methods to 'hack' the Xbox. After the hardware exploit (boot with modified bios) we have seen 2 types of software exploits (gamesave and 2 types of dashboard exploits), do you think we can expect new HW or SW exploits from your or other teams in the future?

Michael Steil:: Definitely. Microsoft hasn't been doing significant changes to the Xbox hardware security system for one and a half years now, but if they do, we'll be there. And we're continuously working on SW exploits.


Xbox-Scene:: There are some great games on Linux like Unreal Tournament, Quake3 and others. What would have to be done (drivers?, glibc?) to be able to play these with a decent framerate on Xbox-Linux?

Michael Steil:: The problem is that in spite of the excellent 3D performance of the Xbox, we can't use it in Linux yet. There are no Open Source drivers for nVidia graphics hardware, and there is no freely-available documentation. One approach would be to patch the binary drivers nVidia ships for Linux on the PC, but no real progess has been made here yet.


Xbox-Scene:: What are your future plans and goals for Xbox-Linux? Does the project have a roadmap?

Michael Steil:: The Multimedia Distribution and the port of other distributions are our main goals at the moment. In addition, of course, we have to keep up with new Xboxes and new Linux features.


Xbox-Scene:: PART B of the Xbox-Linux contest ended on 31 dec 2003. Can you tell us a bit about the result yet? Did all SW exploits (007 gamesave, mech gamesave, xft dash, audio dash) meet the goals?

Michael Steil:: We are still talking about this.


Xbox-Scene:: I'm curious what you think about the EUCD. As far as I'm informed this law has already been passed in your country. Did you read it? Does/Will it make any difference for you and/or for the Xbox Linux project?

Michael Steil:: It won't. I must admit that I am not perfectly informed about all the details of the EUCD, but as I understand it, the gist is that it is illegal to defeat security mechanisms if it's done for copyright infringement. Because of the DMCA alone, the Xbox Linux Project has always been very cautious. Although the MechInstaller architecture would have easily allowed us to run copied games, we did our best to obfuscate its innards to make it impossible for pirates to abuse it.
Yes, we do defeat security mechanisms. But we always did our best to lock out pirates.


Xbox-Scene:: Did Microsoft ever contact you or the team?

Michael Steil:: No. Well, they obviously feared that we put it on the website, which would be bad publicity for them, if they contacted us.
But we did contact Microsoft, after we had the Dashboard exploit. Microsoft made a lot of communication mistakes. They never contacted us (we're rivals, not deadly enemies) and they they were anything but productive in the talks initiated by us. This is a real pity, because the situation could have been a lot better for them now. I would still advise them to talk to us.


Xbox-Scene:: While Sony tries to add new security to their PS2 all the time, Microsoft hasn't done much. They did give a try to stop from booting another bios (xbox v1.1) long time ago and they recently fixed the dashboard exploit - but besides that MS has been very calm (besides some smaller things like removing ground/power/LFRAME from LPC). What's your opinion about this?

Michael Steil:: We think the 1.1 update has not been done because of security. The USB controller was flawed, so they needed they daughterboard in the 1.0. They fixed it in the 1.1 MCPX in order to get rid of the expensive daughterboard, and updated the security mechanism while they were updating the MCPX. Changing the MCPX security again probably won't make much difference again, but it is expensive; and they can't remove the LPC because they need it during the manufacturing process.
The top priority for Microsoft seems to be the cheapest possible production of the Xbox. Security comes second. (One could say, that reminds one of Microsoft's priorities in the software world as well? But I won't say that.) The Dashboard update was cheap.


Xbox-Scene:: What do you think hides behind Microsoft's tactic to completely ignore 'alternative development' ? They don't support it (like Sony does with an official linux port for example) but they don't really do anything against it either.

Michael Steil:: Bashing the homebrew scene is a very bad thing, they know that. That's very bad publicity. Bashing Xbox Linux is even worse, because it has "Linux" in it. All they can do is ignore it.
But the question is, why don't they support it - at least homebrew development? I think this was a big mistake by Microsoft. They could have easily officially permitted homebrew development and still prevented piracy, by switching the Xbox in a "crippled" mode that is slightly different, but incompatible with games, when you run homebrew code. The implementation costs would have been minimal, and the scene out there wouldn't have been that eager to defeat the security mechanisms. If they hadn't done this mistake, we not have any piracy at all today.


Xbox-Scene:: Can other developers get involved in the project? How?

Michael Steil:: Certainly. They are welcome to join the developer mailing list (http://lists.sourceforge.net/lists/listinfo/xbox-linux-devel) and to visit our IRC channel at irc://irc.oftc.net/xbox-linux


Xbox-Scene:: How can non-developers help/support the project?

Michael Steil:: We are always looking for translators and for experienced people that write documentation.


Xbox-Scene:: Anything else you'd like to add?

Michael Steil:: Do not support piracy. Help the homebrew scene.


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