My Appliance is Smarter Than Your Appliance: Reviewing the I-Opener
Surveying the Internet Appliance Market
The long-term success of Linux is seemingly dependent on the ability of vendors to position Linux as a major player in the Internet-appliance (or network-appliance) world. Couple a rock-solid operating system with a Web browser and some Java capabilities, the reasoning goes, and consumers who don't know a lick about operating systems and computers will be able to connect to the Internet and participate fully in the Internet revolution.
I used to scoff at this, but now I'm not so sure. Being a good penguinista, I should buy it, as so much venture capital and effort in the Linux community is being funneled into the development of Linux-based Internet appliances. But after playing around with an i-opener from Netpliance, reflecting on past experiences with network appliances, and spending some time making recommendations to friends about what sort of devices to buy, I've had a change of heart about what sort of devices will carry the day. Trouble is, because of the nature of embedded systems no one will know about your success.
Any discussion of embedded systems and Linux must begin with a fact: the standard PC will not be replaced anytime soon. International Data Corp. estimates that the Internet appliance market will reach 55.7 million units in 2002, after recording 13.9 million units in 1999. This is an amazingly high number, but it makes sense when you consider that number includes everything that can access a computer, minus PCs. This would include WebTV, devices like the i-opener, the Palm VII, and other PDAs that can access the Internet.
This is an incredibly exciting field, and one where some truly great technology is being applied. But my question is: will an Internet-connected Palm Pilot, no matter how fast the connection someday, ever truly replace a PC? With most of these Internet appliances, you're dealing with some sort of physical limitation, whether it be the very small screen on a Palm or Visor or Qualcomm smart phone, or the lack of any computing power found on a WebTV.
Can these devices yet replace a PC? No. I can't load Quicken on one of these devices. I can't load my son's extensive educational CD-ROM collection on an Internet appliance. Until we see CD-ROM distributions completely replaced by Web-based content, there's no way that an Internet appliance can totally replace a PC.
But can they act as an adjunct? Yes. I would imagine that most technologically advanced folks like the idea of using a high-speed Palm for those moments when they're away from their desks. Similarly, I would imagine that a lot of folks using WebTV for at-home Internet access already use a PC at work. So there's definitely a place in the food chain for Internet appliances.
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