Internet Appliances

by Phil Hughes

This week, I will be talking about Internet Appliances. This is hot in the Linux space. Plus, this is the market that Be, Inc. decided to use as the new focus of their company.

What is an Internet Appliance?

While a toaster running Linux could be an Internet Appliance, this isn't the right track to be on. An Internet Appliance is a system in which the primary function is to put someone on the Internet. In ham radio, we have the term appliance operator which refers to a ham who doesn't really know anything about the technology, but just uses a radio to talk to people. An Internet Appliance is the equivalent tool that allows someone with no knowledge of Internet technology or computers to get on the Internet.

How does this differ from a computer system purchased primarily to connect someone to the Internet? This difference will grow as Internet Appliances (IA) evolve, but even today, they are different. An IA is not a general-purpose computer. It is designed specifically for connecting to the Internet. The software is likely in ROM (read-only memory) rather than on a disk. That software is probably only a pared-down version of an operating system and a web browser. It will, out of the box, talk to the Internet.

All this doesn't necessarily mean it won't be part of a toaster, or more likely, a stove or refrigerator. In addition, there will be stand-alone IAs and a very portable version commonly referred to as a web pad. The web pad is expected to offer wireless web service. The first example of this type of product is the Palm 7 from 3COM. Plan on seeing more in the near future.

Where are IAs Going?

As IAs evolve, we can expect to see free applications from vendors. "Free", however, will have strings attached. For example, a book retailer might offer an application that offers easy access to reviews, but also offers a quick path to purchasing books from them. The same goes for a free cookbook from a grocery chain.

This raises the issue of compatibility between IAs. They don't need to be manufactured by the same company and they don't need to run the same processor chip, but they do need a common language if they are to succeed. After all, if Safeway were to put together a free cooking program, they would prefer having one that runs on everyone's IA rather than writing a bunch of different versions.

When all we were talking about was displaying information, HTML was the answer. Today, however, we expect a lot more from our web browser. This is where Java and Javascript come in. As long as the IA will interpret these languages, you can write portable applications. For those who dislike writing in Java, an alternative is JPython. JPython allows you to write in Python and produce a program that can be interpreted by a Java interpreter.

Much like the commercialization of the Internet, IAs are bringing it a new group of consumers. They know little about the technology behind the Net, and are here only as consumers. This is similar to what happened with commercial radio, and later, television. What we saw happen was the creation of a consumer culture, consisting largely of people who were willing to pay the price of having to sit through advertising in order to get the information they wanted.

With this new class of Internet Consumer who has little or no interest in the technology, we will see more buying-habit-related advertising. In the next few years, there will be some big changes in advertising trends on the Internet. Much like public TV or National Public Radio, Internet sites are going to have to weigh carefully their "free information" vs. "paid by ads" positions.

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