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Thin is in at Demo conference

Thin servers and information appliances from Sun, Data General, and a handful of start-ups abound at the California trade show.

PALM SPRINGS, California--Thin is in, but not just at the health spas and tanning salons in this tony desert resort community.

Over at Demo 98, an industry conference that largely specializes in technologies too new to be called products, new thin Internet servers, for linking users to the Web, abound.

Information appliances have been around for years, argued Don Norman, who runs the appliance design center for consumer products at Hewlett Packard (HWP), pointing to calculators and fish-finders for boats.

"Consumers don't care about technology. They want something that is low cost and works," said Norman, who chided Silicon Valley for building products to suit itself. "One of the problems is that you think you're the average consumer, but you aren't."

Demo impresario Chris Shipley seconded Norman's slam. "I don't think we in Silicon Valley are really good at knowing what consumers want," she said.

The most visible information appliance at Demo, as it was at last week's Internet Showcase show in San Diego, is Cidco's (CDCO) iPhone, an Internet telephone for making phone calls, sending email messages, or surfing the Web. The product was designed by InfoGear.

But the world's fattest proponent of thin appliances, Sun Microsystems (SUNW), showed off its Internet answering machine, called Persona, which works as a voice mail machine that also accepts and reads aloud email messages plus receives faxes.

A Java-based thin Internet server, the Persona device manages personal information. Users can call in for voice mail, use a Java interface on their PC, or access their personal messages remotely with a Web browser. Sun positions Persona for the small office and home office market but details like pricing haven't been tied down.

Data General (DGN), another computer hardware manufacturer still green in the consumer market, showed off its Network Utility Box (NUB), the first product in its ThiiN line of Internet appliances.

Venture capitalist Neil Weintraut of San Francisco's 21st Century Internet Venture Partners dubs Data General's device the first WHAN, for wireless home area network, a device to enable in-home networks with multiple Internet appliances.

As promised for delivery before year's end, the network utility box sits somewhere near the electrical fuse box where the phone (or cable) line enters the house. With two connections, one for power and the other for network connectivity, it feeds Internet data wirelessly to other Internet appliances in the home.

"It's managed, perhaps even owned, by an ISP, which is likely to be a telephone or cable company," Craig Heim, product marketing director for the ThiiN line, said. With 150 feet of wireless range, it can cover any Internet appliance in the home: home alarm system, Net-enabled washing machine (calls its own repairman when it's broken), or home PC.

For phone connections, the NUB will cost around $500, running up to $1,500 for cable modem connections.

Also at the show, Cobalt Microserver showed its smallish blue cube of an Internet/intranet server designed for workgroups, branch offices, ISPs, and other specialized uses. The device, priced from $1,000, provides email, Web publishing, file sharing, threaded discussions, plus automated searching and indexing--all without requiring heavy lifting by corporate MIS departments. It ships next month through resellers.

Philips Mobile Computing Group showed off its Nino 300, announced earlier this month, a handheld, pen-based device based on Microsoft's Windows CE operating system, due to ship to retail channels by summer and starting at around $400.

3Com (COMS) detailed its efforts to create a Palm Pilot platform of both software applications and specialized devices for specific industry markets by licensing its technology to a hardware partner in various segments.