Contiki Bringing New Life to 8-bit Systems?

Putting a new twist on some old technology, a Swedish computer networking
researcher Monday unwrapped an Internet-enabled operating system and
desktop environment which may boast the world’s first true Web browser for
an 8-bit system.

Adam Dunkels, a computer networking
researcher at the Swedish Institute of Computer Science in Kista, released
the first version of Contiki, originally
written for the Commodore 64 system. The C64, a favorite of hackers in its
day, boasts a 1 MHz 8-bit 6510 CPU and 64K of RAM.

While the C64 was superceded long ago — as were other systems for which
developers are creating Contiki ports, including 8-bit Nintendo
Entertainment System, the VIC-20, 8-bit Atari, Atari Jaguar, Atari Lynx,
the Tandy CoCo and the Apple — Dunkels said Contiki is not about

“This is not about playing old games to revive childhood memories,” he
said. “It is about pushing the limits and doing things previously thought

Indeed, Dunkels’ Open Source Contiki packs a multi-tasking kernel, a
windowing system and themeable GUI toolkit, a screen saver, a TCP/IP stack,
a personal web server and a web browser into a single, fully
self-contained, 42kb binary.

“In short, Contiki is the software needed to access the Internet and browse
the Web,” Dunkels said. “What makes Contiki special is that it makes it
possible to do this even from really constrained systems, which previously
have been believed to be too small to be able to run this kind of

Dunkels said a system running Contiki does not require any expansion
boards, CPU accelerators, extra memory cards or a disk drive. All it needs
is an RS-232 (serial) card or an Ethernet connection to access the
Internet, and 20kb of RAM for base functionality. For full functionality,
including desktop icons, the web browser and web server, it requires about
50 kb of RAM.

While other programs have allowed 8-bit systems to browser the Web, Dunkels
pointed out that those programs require a powerful Unix or Linux server to
translate the Internet content into a simpler format which an 8-bit system
can understand.

A developer is currently working on PPP support for Contiki, which would
allow users to utilize a modem and a dial-up Internet account with the
operating system. It already supports broadband if used with an Ethernet

Dunkels said Contiki may have a home in very small networked systems. “The
small size of Contiki could make it useful in small networked systems which
are required to be very inexpensive,” he said. “Such a system could be
comprised of a low-cost, low-power, 8-bit microcontroller like an AVR, an
Ethernet chip such as the CS8900a, an LCD display and three touch
buttons — perhaps something similar to the Mosaic Industries EtherSmart
Controller. Contiki would make it possible to surf the Web from a device
with only a small low-cost 8-bit microcontroller, without needing to use an
expensive 32-bit CPU.”

However, he noted that the operating system is probably not suited to
end-user devices like PDAs or mobile phones, because it doesn’t support the
kind of features expected from a browsing environment today. It doesn’t
support Java, Flash or images.

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