DAILY MAIL & GUARDIAN 24 January 2000

New World

Net appliances come home

JAMAIS CASCIO advises suits and other Hollywood weasels on what could happen over the next hundred years. He worries about being called a futurist.


t's the beginning of the year and, out of nowhere, a new technology trend is taking over the computing world. As is usual for such trends, six months ago few people had heard of it; six months from now, it will either be dead or totally mainstream. I'm referring to the "Internet Appliance," a device for simple e-mail and web access for the home, and quite a few big names -- and some very interesting small ones -- are betting that it's this year's wave of the future.

Over the last couple of weeks, there have been several announcements that show just how popular the Internet Appliance idea is within the computing world. At Comdex, mainstream companies such as Compaq and Microsoft talked openly about new products for easy-to-use Internet access, such as the iPaq and yet another version of WindowsCE. But more interesting announcements came from the upstarts in the industry. Transmeta, the company that hired Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, revealed its Crusoe chip, which has ultra low-power consumption at very high speeds, and is intended for cheap & mobile appliances. And Be, Inc, which markets one of the fastest operating systems around, BeOS, announced that it was refocusing its efforts on the Internet Appliance market.

Internet Appliances are based on the concept that most people spend their time on computers simply doing e-mail and browsing the web, and that a simple device could do that far more easily -- and, hopefully, reliably -- than a full-blown computer. Intended to be fast, cheap, and totally under control, Internet Appliances can appear as anything from an iMac-like screen & keyboard combo to wireless tablets. Like the Apple system, external design is considered as important as the internal hardware. Unlike the iMac, however, Internet Appliances are being marketed less to total novices than to people who already have a computer, but wish to have a secondary method of accessing the Net.

To me, the wireless devices are the most intriguing. Intended for use inside the home, wireless devices let you check mail or websites while watching TV, working in the kitchen, or anywhere else you may wish to sit and read. These products are close to market, too. A Denver, Colorado-based company called Qubit is currently testing a wireless Internet device that weighs less than 5 lbs and sells for a bit more than the cost of a new home videogame machine. Qubit intends to have its wireless, sub-$400 "WebTablet" for sale by the second quarter of 2000. The WebTablet uses "Stinger," a version of the BeOS designed to support Internet Appliances.

Stinger combines the remarkably rich multimedia technology of the BeOS with the familiar interface of a web browser, creating an operating environment that may look like AOL but underneath is fast and stable.

"Stinger blew me away," enthused David Armitage, CEO of Qubit, the manufacturer of the WebTablet. "We're running Stinger and Opera and Macromedia Flash in under 16 MB of Flash RAM." Qubit first attempted to develop its WebTablet using WindowsCE. The results were disappointing, especially in the realm of multimedia. Stinger was just what Armitage needed. "Be blows everything away when it comes to supporting streaming video & audio."

Like Qubit, Compaq also started with WinCE and then licensed Stinger. But Compaq continued to develop its CE-based device, recently showing its MSN-based Web Companion to reporters. Fickle hardware partners and the presence of Microsoft may make this a difficult market for Be to crack -- assuming the market is viable to begin with. Internet Appliances may well follow in the footsteps of such spectacular fizzles as Oracle's Network Computer, Microsoft's WebTV, and various and sundry set-top boxes.

Why might things be different this time? According to Lamar Potts, Be's VP of Marketing, it's "all about e-commerce. E-commerce is more likely to happen on a device that's convenient. [...] An impulse decision to buy something is more likely to happen when the device is very accessible." Portability, simplicity, and stability are the crucial elements to the creation of a viable consumer device -- elements promised by Internet Appliances.

The hardware has to be there, too, and chip companies are moving aggressively to take hold in a market that Intel doesn't yet dominate. While Intel's latest chips run even hotter than before -- the latest "portable" version of the Pentium III draws up to 11 watts of power -- smaller companies such as National Semiconductor and the upstart Transmeta are showing off chips that are specifically designed for low power use and portability. The Transmeta chip, Crusoe, looks particularly interesting.

Not only is Crusoe able to achieve very high speeds (up to 700MHz) at very low power consumption (no more than 1 watt), it is also intended to be able to do high-speed emulation of any other CPU system. A Crusoe-based device could potentially run not just software for Intel (x86) chips, but also Mac software for PowerPC, even software for Sparc or Alpha chips. Unsurprisingly, Transmeta already has a version of Linux -- Mobile Linux -- ready to go. Mobile Linux, like Stinger, is intended to provide a fast, reliable operating system for Internet Appliances and Webpads.

It's clear that the pieces are in place for Internet Appliances to make a splash in the market. The only question is which design will win out. WindowsCE has the weight of Microsoft behind it; developers are currently in love with Linux. Nonetheless, a system like Stinger could be the key to unlocking consumer demand for Internet Appliances. Qubit's Armitage is confident he made the right decision. "Nothing touches Be. Looking at every OS out there, when it comes to a full, rich multimedia experience, nothing comes close."

© Daily Mail & Guardian - 24 January 2000

* Jamais Cascio is a consultant and writer specializing in scenarios of how we may live over the next century. His clients have included mainstream corporations, film and television producers. He has written for many publications, including Wired and TIME, and is currently working on a screenplay. He is an active member of the oldest and most influential online community, The Well, and believes that new technologies are pushing people into new social, economic and political realms.

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* Arthur Goldstuck: Webfeet
* Gavin Dudley: Dr Byte
* Rupert Neethling: Toolbox
* Douglas Rushkoff: Online


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Published weekly by the Electronic Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, South Africa. Send email comments to the editor, Gavin Dudley