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IBM, start-ups go further into Net devices

Start-ups and even major companies such as IBM are working on such concepts as foldable screens, Net access computers made of thick paper, and electronic magazine devices.

For anyone who has said that computers need to be as easy to use as a newspaper, the future appears to be getting closer.

Start-ups and such major manufacturers as IBM alike are working on foldable screens, "paper" computers with Net access, and home systems that resemble an electronic magazine.

In the coming weeks and months, a crush of Internet devices is expected from IBM, Gateway, and Acer, among others. Compaq, the largest PC maker, got the ball rolling yesterday by unveiling a $499 Web PC and is expected to bring out a simple Internet computer for the home next year.

But the future may bring more novel Internet computers than the appliances planned for next year.

Such ambitions are part of a larger reform movement among computer makers. Hoping to suit computers to everyday consumer needs, companies have realized that many users essentially want just one thing: Internet access. Traditional PC design provides Internet access but with a lot of frills and baggage that are not necessary for Web browsing and email.

But along with innovation will come failure, analysts say.

"Many of these early devices will be unsuccessful and will fall short in various ways before one of them hits the sweet spot," according to Michael Slater, founder of the Microprocessor Report. "A lot of these devices now are woefully overblown."

One of the most basic yet radical Net devices being proposed is a "paper computer," an idea pitched by the Paper Computer Corporation of Gaithersburg, Maryland. Though strictly a prototype, the concept shows signs of viability. This kind of device could theoretically be used to provide Internet access for people who don't have a computer--and conversely for companies that need to minimize costs.

The computer is made primarily from paper and includes inexpensive silicon processors and low-cost display components, said Jim Willard, chief executive at Paper Computer.

A minimalist computer terminal like this would allow businesses to receive more digitized data, helping to eliminate the massive inefficiencies rooted in transferring huge amounts of paper-based data to computers. The Internet Revenue Service and insurance companies, for example, must re-enter an endless stream of forms into computers.

"The cost of this device is competitive with the cost to process complex paper forms," Willard said. It could also be used by people who don't have a computer or don't use the Internet. "It's important because it bridges the chasm between people that don't have access to the Internet and Internet services," said Willard.

The company is also proposing a conceptual paper device for electric utilities. The user inputs data such as name and payment information and then hooks up the device to a phone line and sends the data directly to the utility company via a low-speed connection.

Making these devices is economically feasible, Willard said, citing analogous devices which Radio Shack sells for as little as $10. Technologies such as conductive adhesives, printable flexible circuits, and light emitting polymer displays would be used.

Willard believes he could have a usable product for insurance companies and government agencies by next year. That may be wishful thinking for a company as small as his. But the real question is not whether this category of simple Internet devices will succeed or not--because analysts believe they most certainly will eventually--but which ones will succeed.

See related story: Interest grows in PC

Big chance for Big Blue
IBM, an infinitely more experienced company, has probably the best chance of any computer company to realize these concepts. Big Blue is planning to bring its technological prowess to bear on electronics that could yield Web-centric handheld computers with foldable screens and a computer for the home that resembles an electronic newspaper.

Some of these devices would be based in part on the development of flexible transistors, which the company announced this month. Flexible electronics would be a boon to future handheld computers, according to Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects in Washington.

Today, using handheld computers for Web surfing and email is cumbersome because of the tiny screens, among other reasons. But if the screen was designed to expand and fold out when used, this might make viewing the Web practical on a wireless handheld computer, according to Dzubeck.

A progenitor to this concept was an expandable keyboard which IBM touted on one of its earliest ThinkPad notebooks, the 701C. Because the compactness of the 701 model made a large, usable keyboard prohibitive, IBM designed the keyboard to expand when the user flipped up the laptop's screen.

But this concept is fraught with challenges too.

"There's more than just flexible transistors needed to make this work," Slater said, citing other screen-specific technologies that would have to be commercially developed.

In Japan, where much of IBM's portable computer research is done, Big Blue is discussing a toaster-shaped electronic pad for the home, according to Nikkei Byte, a Japanese computer publication. IBM Japan envisions a future where each family member has his or her own electronic pad which is stored in a cradle and automatically downloads customized data based on individual interests. Users would take this out of the cradle every morning and peruse this data instead of a morning paper, according to the report.

Slater likes the idea of tablet computers similar to this and thinks it will be viable as a second or third computer in the home or the first computer for people that have shunned the PC.

He says that "Web tablets" that connect to a home-base station and provide wireless Internet connection should catch on because they allow people to roam anywhere in the house and connect.