Rage of the Machine: The New God Will Fail

by David Penn

"If there are any gods whose chief concern is man, they cannot be very important gods."--Arthur C. Clarke

You can see them at the horizon. Long hidden, they approach slowly, but with the determination of marginalized individuals gathered together in the singularity of Purpose. In their hands, you see torches, pitchforks, banners reading "Death to the PC!" "Long Live the Net!" Like shadows cast by resentment and rage itself, they darken the ground with every encroachment, march closer still, muttering, mumbling beneath their breaths of the tyranny of hard drives and the Interconnectedness of All Things. You could cower behind nearby rocks, or join their growing, ominous ranks ... But they are "coming" no longer. They are here ...

Fortunately, most of the members of this grim band are marketing folks - long-winded, a bit highfalutin', but not especially dangerous. Still, they don't mind sending whole segments of the population down the old rabbit-hole every now and then - for fun and profit. And, true to nature, they are at it again. Yes, the PC as we know it will not last forever. And, yes, the power of an increasingly wired world is likely something that will. But whatever the service, device or system that heralds the New Dawn might be, the Internet appliance (IA) - that i-opener, epod, Dot.Station, web phone, etc. - is not it.

In the rush to arrive at the post-PC era, the Internet appliance is a sideways move at best: a less capable, marginally less expensive PC, marketed to a population that is somehow anti-PC, yet chomping at the bit to get "news! stock quotes! e-mail!" over the Internet. Near the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, where a set of Komodo dragons has taken up residence, is a billboard that reads: "There is a reason you've never met anyone from Komodo ..." Something similar could be said for the legions of anti-PC, pro-Internet consumers allegedly waiting to purchase Internet appliances by the bargeload. Do you know why you've never met any of them? Because there aren't any.

I should say, before too much blood or rhetoric is spilled, that this argument has nothing to do with the proliferation of hand-held devices, from the Palm Pilot to Linux-driven devices like Samsung's Yopy and Compaq's iPAQ, which are among the most progressive developments in truly personal computing over the last several years. As the freakish popularity of cell phones can attest, there are few more rational (and, potentially, profitable) directions for personal technology products at the beginning of the 21st century than the development of portable (especially hand-held) computing devices with, say, wireless networking capabilities. And, insofar as the Linux operating system is a player in this development, the flourishing of these machines is a further flourishing of the Linux OS.

But the clamor over IA - particularly those machines that consume desk or counter space much like a PC, access the Internet like a PC, but lack even one-sixth of the PC's basic functionality and value in terms of computing (values such as learning about how computers work to actually programming and building them) - is hype. Perhaps, in the same way the CB radio can be considered one of the Neanderthal ancestors of the cell phone, the IA phase will lead to something that does mark a real, progressive leap forward in a sort of non-portable, home-based, information-creating/processing experience. In such a case, the IA would be properly seen as an interlude. But even as an intermediary step, the IA leaves much to be desired - or not desired, as the case may be. For the IA is a campaign without a natural constituency.

Remember the i-Opener!

Remember the hacking of the i-opener? (See The Rookery's piece "Honey! I hacked the i-opener!" .) To recap, a Las Vegas engineer, Ken Segler, purchased the $99 Internet appliance late last year and turned it into a real, working computer "simply" by adding a hard drive and installing the Linux operating system. While the developers of the i-opener eventually capitulated to the hacker community, the company's initial reaction was predictable. In essence, Netpliance, the makers of i-opener, roared, "How dare you increase the capabilities of our machine!" and tried to use a mandatory ISP contract as a way to weed out the hackers from the true, blue IA users. This hostility to the spirit of hacking is, in many ways, even worse than the assault on said spirit brought on by the DeCSS case. DeCSS is about access, specifically about the right of individuals to use their talents and technology at hand to alter not the wholesale capabilities of a product, but to allow a broader community to participate: namely, providing Linux users with access to DVD technology. But the i-opener hack was about giving the product an entire new set of additional capabilities, and for that effort, the successful attempt was rebuffed. In short, Ken Segler wanted to bring fire to the i-opener, and Netpliance said, "Remain in the dark".

It is this anti-hacker ethos out of which much IA emerges that makes it interesting to hear Linux people slobbering over IA, particularly those sort of Linux people who once spent time retching over the thought of "dumbing down" Linux for apathetic end users. Hacking, by its very nature, presumes value in working with computers, a value as fundamental to our 21st-century culture as gardening or carpentry. To a hacker, IA is a bunch of flowers purchased at the Safeway supermarket, or plastic furniture bought in a drugstore parking lot. Insofar as hacking is a progressive relationship with computers, a relationship predicated upon investigation, hard work, experimentation and innovation, the IA is reactionary technology - or, perhaps, a reactionary deployment of technology previously used elsewhere to greater (and proven) benefit at only marginally higher cost.

What is an "Internet appliance"? What should it consist of, as something apart from a PC? Too often, IA is the sum of what it is not, chiefly "not complex", as if every PC manufacturer is not spending a major part of every research hour trying to make PCs ever more easy to use and ever more capable. By comparison to the modern PC (the iMac is one, but not the only, instructive example from the consumer/end-user viewpoint), the IA is a glorified dumb terminal: sleek and more attractive, yes, but dumber than a dot-matrix printer. The IA is going to have to offer non-PC users more than the same tired tryptch of "news! stock quotes! e-mail!" that every other mainstream-directed, pro-Internet sales pitch seems to adopt as the come-on of the millennium.

Even IA's greatest feature, the ease with which a user can access the Internet, is suspect when considered competitively with the contemporary personal computer. The promoters of IA boast that Internet access is easier to obtain on a specialty device like an IA than on a PC. Forgetting that shallow learning curve of getting on-line for a moment, this boast begs the observant to ask: have any of you tried logging on to the Internet with an iMac lately? What about the "one-touch" Internet access offered by Compaq, even on its low-end notebook PC like the Presario? Short of patching into cyberspace fully unassisted like someone out of William Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive, Internet access cannot get too much simpler. So much is this the case that it arouses suspicion that the IA's Internet access campaign is little more than anti-PC FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt); is one-step Internet access a major premium over, say, two-step access? And once everyone has secured what can successfully (and accurately) be marketed as "one-step" Internet access, where will the IA's premium be?

And it should be iterated that what we talk about when we talk about IA is a consumer product, not some gamble in the enterprise where losses are part of the price of doing business. For all the technophilia in the consumer market, people are still largely a "look before you leap" bunch. And until IA offers them something they cannot get elsewhere, a premium better than "easier, but less capable", those who are truly Internet-interested will continue to look at PCs. This is especially true considering that PCs are bundled with multi-year Internet packages when sold at places like CompUSA, Circuit City and OfficeMax (and know that this retail market along with Target, Sears and Wal-Mart is where many, though not all, IAs are slated to be sold). On a dollar-for-dollar basis, the Internet bundling packages with most PCs are neither a ripoff nor a bargain for the average, pro-Internet computer user. The main advantage for the PC industry here is the opportunity to re-emphasize that the PC and the Internet are one.

Lies, Damn Lies and End Users

Now, that extra emphasis on the part of PC manufacturers and retailers is both true and not true, a contradiction that may already have doomed the Internet appliance long before the bandwagon even started rolling. Two companies have played a highly visible role in surrounding IA and limiting its chances for escaping into a marketplace that may have been otherwise enticed by its simple charms. Taking a quick look at these two companies should help underscore why there may not ever have been a time for IA and may not ever be. The first company is (surprise, surprise) Microsoft, which fused the relationship between the personal computer and the Internet when they made Internet Explorer a part of the Windows operating system. Whatever shape Microsoft finds itself in once its appeals are either exhausted or successful, this particular cat is out of the bag and, by now, deeply embedded in the popular mind. Internet access by way of PC is a consumer expectation, and will be as long as PCs are sold.

The other significant company trapped IA on the back end, and that company would be Apple. How so? When Apple brought easy-to-understand DVD technology and video editing capabilities to its flagship line of personal computers, the iMac, the company raised the bar to a point beyond which the Internet appliance could clear. "See," Apple seemed to say. "Here's another fun thing you can do with our boxes that you cannot do with theirs." And in this context, "theirs" refers to other companies' personal computers, Internet appliances, you name it. In some respects, the PC world's voice recognition obsession is a similar instance of PCs striking back: "We're computers, baby. We still do more for less."

How much of the IA buzz has to do with declining PC sales and declining profit margins on those sales is anyone's guess - although that market phenomenon makes more sense than the anti-PC, pro-Internet silent majority thesis. And it is true that both of the above companies, Microsoft and Apple, embarked upon their new strategies in the face of sagging interest in their products. Microsoft was desperate to become a central player in the Internet world without relinquishing its stranglehold on the PC market. Apple badly needed something bold, exciting, and (for lack of a better term) "Apple-like" to catch the imagination of a new generation of PC users seduced by ready access to digital video technology and the ever-stylish design of Apple products.

But stop and think for a moment. If you own a PC that is taking up desk space somewhere, would you buy an IA? And what would you have the IA do that your PC does not do better? If you do not own a PC, but are, for one reason or another, interested enough in the Internet to want to spend some money, are you more or less likely to be interested in other aspects of computer-oriented personal technology, such as word processing, game playing, digital video editing, graphic art production, musical composition, or other information-processing activities? In short, the question can be put directly: is the population of those who are pro-Internet but anti-computer significant enough to make up an Internet appliance market? Hearing IA companies like epods talk about the deployment of anthropologists to survey this potentially empty village only underscores the fact that IA seems to be supply in search of demand.

There should be little need for apologies if the PC begins to sound a bit like the aspirin of personal technology, and little room for resentment that specialized devices such as Internet appliances are not better positioned to take over the consumer technology market. Is it too difficult to imagine that, for the most part, those who are going to spend hundreds of dollars on getting wired have largely already done so? The "silicon ceiling" that keeps more people from buying more PCs (and Internet appliances, for that matter) has more to do with disinterest in the overall project - i.e., people who remain unimpressed with the Internet opportunity - than it does with simply making that opportunity "easier".

Unlike the development of hand-held computing devices - and this Monday, Sony announced a new hand-held device, whose name has not been released to the public - which bring a significant premium to the equation (that premium being a combination of portability and size), the Internet appliance movement seeks only to sever the Internet experience from PC hardware, but without realizing that, to their allegedly anti-PC constituency, hardware tends to be hardware. And, as is the case with most consumer products, the ones with the most features tend to win. We, as consumers, like it loaded. And the load PCs can handle - with more style, power and ease of use than ever before - will break an IA's back every time.

email: david@ssc.com

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