Appliance Wars

Simple Internet 'appliances' take on traditional PCs and threaten to invade our homes.

November 22, 1999|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

LAS VEGAS -- If it seems as if the Internet is everywhere these days, just wait: From the toilet to the TV room, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Technology companies here at the mammoth Comdex computer show last week pulled the wraps off a new class of Internet devices called "information appliances." They're betting that these gadgets will become the Next Big Thing for the home.

If the term "information appliance" sounds like a cross between a toaster and a computer kiosk, you're on the right track. Designed to be cheaper, more stylish and less complex than the notoriously moody personal computer, these devices will bring the Internet to every room in the house.

Want to find a good recipe for steak tartare or tap out an e-mail to Grandma? No longer will you have to trudge all the way to the den and wait for the PC to boot up.

Instead, you'll touch a button on an Internet terminal on the kitchen counter or built into the refrigerator and instantly be online.

"In every room and at their convenience, consumers will be able to reach the Web," said Selcuk Cagler, president of Vestel USA Inc., which plans to launch a line of consumer Internet stations.

The birth of these devices may signal a changing role for the 20-year-old personal computer -- which has been the sole gateway to the Net. The buzz at this year's Comdex -- traditionally a bellwether for coming digital trends -- is of a "post-PC" era, when the personal computer fades into the background, replaced by a host of other "smart" devices.

The PC, of course, is not ready for retirement. Plummeting prices for desktop machines have put computers into more homes -- nearly half of Americans now own a desktop PC -- than ever before. And information appliances, which are primarily intended for Web browsing and e-mail, will never equal the PC's ability to tackle heavy-duty assignments, analysts say.

"You talk about digital video editing or word processing and things like that, what appliance will have the power to do it?" said Shawn Sanford, a product manager with Microsoft's Consumer Windows Division.

But many technology companies are betting that consumers fed up with buggy software, unintelligible error messages and repeated computer crashes ("The Blue Screen of Death," as engineers like to call it) will flock to the stripped-down devices. International Data Corp. forecasts that sales of information appliances will exceed those of the personal computer by 2002.

Their assault on the PC's throne has begun.

Netpliance Inc., an Austin, Texas-based start-up, last week began selling i-opener, a sleek Internet station that offers an easy and cheap way to send e-mail and surf the Web.

The device, which costs $199, plus $21.95 a month for Internet service, has a 10-inch color flat-panel screen and a built-in 56K modem. There's no hard drive to store information, but it can be connected to a printer. Designed for beginners, each i-opener is custom configured at the factory, so there's no need to navigate confusing set-up menus. (Information: 888-467-3637 or www.netpliance.com)

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, meanwhile, showed off his corporation's prototype for a device called a "Web companion." Compact and curvy with a wireless keyboard, the Web companion will plug users directly into the software giant's MSN online service, where they can browse the Web or send e-mail through the company's Hotmail service.

To make the Internet's move from the home office to the rest of the house a little easier, engineers have rigged the device to turn into a digital picture frame when it's not turned on, displaying whatever photos the owner likes.

Compaq, Philips Electronics and others are working to make devices based on Microsoft's design. These should hit stores next summer and cost less than $400, company officials said.

Other devices are on the market or in the works. VTech Industries is marketing portable e-mail stations for less than $100. (Information: 888-468-8324 or www.vtechworld.com)

National Semiconductor is working on a wireless Internet tablet so you will be able to carry the Web with you around the house. America Online is developing a television set-top box called AOL TV designed to pipe the online service to the Lay-Z-Boy set.

"The living room has become another major battlefield," said analyst Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies in San Jose, Calif. "This is no longer a place where you will just have a television."

Even game machines will become a Trojan horse for delivering digital information and entertainment services. When Sony's next-generation gaming machine PlayStation 2 arrives in the United States next year, it will have a built-in modem and DVD drive, which means it can surf the Web and play movies and compact audio discs. Computer makers aren't taking this move toward simpler Web machines sitting down.

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