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My Appliance is Smarter Than Your Appliance: Reviewing the I-Opener - page 2

Surveying the Internet Appliance Market

  • February 16, 2000
  • By Kevin Reichard

Which is why the i-opener from Netpliance is worth checking out. For those of you who missed the Super Bowl, the i-opener from Netpliance is a $199 Internet appliance built for Web surfing and electronic mail. Though Netpliance P.R. folks coyly suggest that the i-opener is built on Linux--I was informed via e-mail that the i-opener operating system is based "on a variant of Linux," a scam that Peter Lewis of The New York Times embarrassingly swallowed hook, line, and sinker when he called the i-opener a Linux appliance--the fact is that the i-opener is built on QNX, a POSIX-complaint real-time OS that predates Linux by several years.

Still, as a model for the state of the art in Internet appliances, the i-opener is certainly worth checking out by penguinistas. The i-opener is certainly geared for the consumer market, carrying a $199 list price (with a special $99 introductory offer now in force), and Netpliance is aiming for distribution in traditional retail channels. The unit combines a 10-inch flat-panel LCD screen (800x600 resolution) and CPU with a keyboard and optional PS/2 mouse; a parallel port supporting an optional printer (only the Canon BubbleJet BJC 2000 is supported), and an internal 56K modem provides a direct connection to the Internet. A USB port is present, but not supported. Two lights on the top of the screen indicate whether there's new e-mail and whether the unit is connected to the Internet.

The tagline for i-opener is "all the fun of the Internet without a computer," but this is in fact a computer, and a fairly serious one at that. Built around an Intel 200-MHz x86 Pentium-class processor, the i-opener features 32MB of RAM, 16MB of flash RAM, and built-in speakers. The customized keyboard doesn't have function keys, but rather a set of application-specific keys, complete with a pizza key for ordering pizza online from Papa John's.

The i-opener Web browser supports HTTP 1.1, HTML 3.2 (including frames, forms, and tables), RealAudio 5.0 (which is not as useful as you would think; I never did manage to connect to a streaming-media feed to test this feature, failing on every attempt), JavaScript 1.1, SSL 128-bit encryption, and the ability to store cookies locally. The Web browser is rather robust; connecting to some Java-intensive sites didn't cause as much as a blip in the system. The i-opener Web browser doesn't look like a Web browser in the same manner that both Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer "look" like Web browsers; the navigation buttons are on the bottom of the screen, and users are limited to a basic set of functions (stop, refresh, search, favorites, print, and back/forward, with links to a Web Guide and Shopping pages).

In terms of sheer performance when grabbing Web pages, the i-opener is adequate, though hardly blazingly fast. There's a perceptible pause between when you click on a link and when the page actually starts loading.

The mail client is very good, supporting an address books, drafts, sorting by date, and various attachments (HTML, JPEG, GIF, AU, and URL). Because the i-opener is always on when plugged in (turning off the power merely shifts the machine into a mode where the screen is off, but the OS is still running), the system checks for new e-mail every four hours.

The Netpliance business model is pretty much the same business model envisioned for the majority of the Internet appliance model. There are three streams of income: revenue from the sales of the i-opener itself, revenue from ISP fees, to the tune of a spendy $21.95 per month above and beyond the purchase price, and fees from businesses that want to be listed in the i-opener shopping and Web-guide listings.

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