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Intel peers into the home of the future

A research team at Intel believes it has developed an ideal way for people to access the Internet from home.

A research team at Intel believes it has developed an ideal way for people to access the Internet from home.

Intel's Architecture Labs is in the process of developing a reference design for a new wireless tablet device that allows users to access local information and Internet content.

Huge drops in PC prices and the advent of high-speed broadband access has spurred both PC companies and consumer electronics firms to come up with devices for the networked home of the future. Cyrix, for example, is in the process of developing its own reference design for a similar Internet tablet device.

"We think we've come across the key attributes that have the opportunity to increase the value of the Internet in the home," said Ed Arrington, director of marketing for the Intel research initiative. "These pad devices are certainly part of the concept of the networked home, and we think that broadband connectivity will also play into the overall vision."

The group studied 43 families in one community, evaluating what an ideal device should be, namely: portable, personalized, instantaneous and simple to use.

"It's a research project focused on portability and extreme simplicity of focus," Arrington said.

Ideally, the wireless device would also be low in price. Yet Arrington said the eventual cost may be over $600, as the tablet will probably feature a pricey liquid crystal display. The Intel tablet communicates with the Internet through a console attached to a phone line.

That price may come down if a manufacturer chooses a subsidized business strategy, offsetting the initial price of the hardware with advertising or service revenues. This strategy has taken off recently in the PC market.

Instead of focusing on the exact hardware specifications, Arrington's group has been studying how people actually use technology in the home.

"It's really about the kind of applications people want to do around their home," he said. "We design the devices based on the usage models that become apparent. By presenting the information in the right way, it appears that people use it a lot more."

Intel's device allows users to instantly access specific personalized portal pages with local information like traffic and weather, along with general news and stock information, he said. "Local information is extremely important," Arrington said, noting that the "instant on" feature is also critical. "In the home, people have very short attention spans--they aren't willing to wait even 10 to 15 seconds."

The device is not truly portable in that it can only be used in the home, like a cordless telephone, he said. "The remote control is completely portable--you can take it to the store, but it doesn't provide much utility there," he said, calling Intel's tablet device "location-centric."

The next step in the project will be to finish the reference design, which should be completed sometime next month. Intel plans to then license the plans to outside manufacturers. A device based on the finalized design should be shipping by next spring, he said.

Intel will likely be beaten to the punch by Cyrix, which released a reference design for its WebPad Internet device last year. Although Cyrix hasn't announced any manufacturing partners, company executives have said that they expect to begin shipping by the end of the year.