Internet access without the cost and complexity of a PC is the humble idea behind a smattering of devices now on the market and a welter of products expected to appear over the next several years.
Later this year, computer giant IBM is expected to release a "countertop" device to Internet service providers and telecommunications companies, according to sources familiar with Big Blue's plans. The move would be a first for IBM. "This is selling hardware and software to a whole new breed of customers," said one source.
Acer too has indicated it will come out with screen phones. Compaq and Dell are also expected to introduce similar products. Such devices would rival products already supplied by smaller companies such as Cidco and InfoGear.
All of these point to a future where small, dedicated computers populate the kitchen, den, and bedroom. Even as desktop PCs grow in power and sophistication, newer "information appliances" are predicated not on having the latest-and-greatest technology, but on surprisingly plain means of delivering email or Internet. The no-frills format is intended to attract low-tech consumers.
Approximately 50 million households in the United States are without a PC or Internet connection, according to Kevin Hause, an analyst at International Data Corporation. The growth of information appliances could reduce that number.
"This is a chance for others to feel connected," Hause said. "This allows you to communicate with family and friends without investing the money and time that a PC requires."
The IBM device, for example, is planned as a "screen with a phone" for a very specialized purpose: one-button access to the Internet. "This is single-purpose...getting on the Internet fast. They [IBM] won't do Windows," the source said, implying the operating system software won't come from Microsoft, whose PC products can be exasperatingly complex and saddle users with lengthy delays in getting started.
Big Blue's Internet phone will be supplied by IBM's increasingly powerful Technology Group, which has recently cut a raft of multibillion-dollar deals with companies such as Dell Computer, Cisco, and EMC.
Cidco's emessage device, supplied to SBC Communications subsidiaries Southwestern Bell and Pacific Bell, is similar in design.
The low-cost product, which came on the market in September, is essentially a phone with a compact, integrated keyboard and a small LCD screen. It looks hauntingly like some of the earliest computers from Tandy, and its software too seems comparatively simple because it's designed to be a low-cost, limited-purpose appliance, not a fancy, multipurpose computer.
Emessage, which came out in September, costs $179 for the device and $7.95 for monthly service.
Telephone carriers are targeting the device at newcomers.
"Out the door, we're targeting inexperienced users," said John Blinkiewiz, a product manager at SBC. "You get into the data-oriented world of today without a huge purchase decision."
"Seventy percent of the people have not discovered the 'killer app' of the decade--email," said a spokesperson from Pacific Bell, alluding to the potentially large latent market demand for electronic messages.
Pacific Bell is offering the emessage statewide in California, while Southwestern Bell is marketing it in Mississippi, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and Texas.
The market for this type of device is now relatively small, in the hundreds of thousands, IDC's Hause said. But Infogear nonetheless sells approximately 200,000 annually, he said. The relatively unknown company has accordingly received funding from Cisco Systems, Intel, and MediaOne Ventures.
Such investments, along with the efforts by IBM and Pacific Bell, can be interpreted as endorsements of the concept, Hause added. Cidco's stock has bounced from a 52-week low of $1.62 to close yesterday at just above $11
Not everyone agrees the market exists, waiting to be tapped. "The phone is a appliance optimized for one purpose...it's not a computer. As soon as you try to do something different you foul it up," said Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects, a consultancy.
"Once you go beyond [the single-purpose appliance] then the frustration level goes up" and defeats the purpose of appealing to inexperienced users, he said.
Dzubeck further said that most current screen-phone users are not neophytes but experienced PC users looking for an inexpensive way to get secondary email acccess. SBC's Blinkiewiz concurred to an extent, stating that some experienced users are using the device as a second email account.
Some inexperienced users may quickly want to move beyond simplistic devices once they see there's more to the Internet experience than just email, Blinkiewiz added.
Such demands would likely force manufacturers to bring more functions to tiny screens.
"Later we'll offer more content--news, sports, stocks," said the Pacific Bell spokesperson, who admitted some will graduate to a PC when they crave more features.
In the more distant future, analysts envision more sophisticated devices that are attached to a speedy home network.
"I have this vision of the 'kitchen magnet PC,' a flat-panel-based, color-coordinated panel that sticks to the refrigerator. It is heavy on voice in and output, can be used as a phone, auto dialer, [or] Web browser," said Roger Kay of IDC. "[You could] Watch kids in other rooms using embedded videocams," he suggested.
The wireless world also beckons
Meanwhile, Internet access for the masses may not be limited to home devices. Palm computers or new-fangled cellular phones also may provide high-bandwidth access to the Internet and email services, no matter where you are.
Phones like Qualcomm's pdQ smartphone are already available, touting email and Web browsing. But the wireless infrastructure to support Web browsing and email is embryonic and often tenuous.
The pdQ smartphone boasts the basics for a wireless Internet device: a relatively large LCD display, email software, and a Web browser. When connected to a Web site, the stripped-down browser accesses only text data site because it is not powerful enough to handle graphics.
The email application conserves data bandwidth resources too, receiving mail titles only. Users can then choose which messages they want to download and read, according to a Qualcomm spokesperson. Because it only has two megabytes of memory, users have "to be cognizant of the size of messages" and attachments are a no-no, the spokesperson said.
Connection speeds resemble the personal computer of 1993, offering a maximum of 14.4 kilobits per second. Nonetheless, in North America Sprint PCS, Airtouch, and Bell Mobility of Canada have begun offering wireless services for these devices.
"I've heard a dozen complaints in the last few days about connection problems," said Dzubeck. "[The companies will] tell you they're great but I've heard otherwise."
"Wireless data services have only really been around for six months [in the United States]," asserted Qualcomm's spokesperson. Dzubeck says it boils down to coverage area and technological impediments such as the design of the interface. Many of these phones require incessant drilling down to get to features and text "runs tremendously" off the screen.
"We're now in the phase where we're working through the deficiencies," he said. Suppliers are now assimilating the shortcomings and will come out with better products, he said.
Ultimately, palm computers will metamorphose into the most compelling wireless Internet devices, Dzubeck believes. "Just like IBM did with its ThinkPad [notebook PC] keyboard, you might have a device with a screen that butterflies [expands] out."
Faster speeds will be necessary. Qualcomm says it is working to deliver up to 64 kilobits per second. But this will be implemented in Japan first, a country that is ahead of the United States in wireless communications.