The computer industry is scrabbling to define a a simple, cheap alternative to the desktop personal computer for surfing the Internet. But can they do it without crippling the medium? What is wrong with this statement: The Internet is a global set of interconnected computers? According to half the industry at the moment, the answer is the word computers. Consumers don’t like computers. They like televisions, games consoles, video recorders, anything else electronic and fun – just don’t say the ‘c’ word to them. Computers are expensive, they are techy, they are not the kind of thing that you really want your neighbours to find you playing with in the lounge. So over the last two months the industry has been desperately trying to find ways to re-package their computers to make them less… well computeresque.
Cheap and cheerful
Essentially everyone has a similar vision, of a cheap and cheerful console that people can use to attach themselves cheaply and cheerfully to the information superhighway. It has got to be non-intimidating and it has to let them surf. When we say everyone in this context we mean the likes of Oracle Corp, Microsoft Corp, Apple Computer Inc (with cohorts Mitsubishi Electric Co Ltd and Bandai Co Ltd), Sega Enterprises Ltd, 3DO Co, Philips Electronics NV and Sun Microsystems Inc, and each week more join the band. These companies are either trying to adapt their existing boxes into low-cost information appliances, or in the case of the software companies, they are hoping to introduce cheap client hardware that will be driven by their back-end servers. Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison has been one of the most vocal proponents of this kind of technology, and appears to have two projects up his sleeve. One is a $500 diskless Internet browser based on Acorn Computer Group Plc’s ARM RISC, the other is WebTV, a box that will be more difficult to sell since it requires wide use of broadband networks to homes and offices to deliver interactive television services. Meanwhile Sun chief executive Scott McNealy is all fired up about a similar idea, but is talking about an Internet station costing only $300 and relying heavily on the company’s Java programming language for its software requirements. Infoworld reports that Acorn’s Hermann Hauser is also planning an ARM-based box called Netsurfer, which he intends to launch in the UK next month. It will reportedly use Acorn’s video windows operating system and next year will be able to run Java applets. Curiously enough Hauser’s projected price for this box is $300. It looks as if McNealy and Hauser have been talking. Meanwhile Sega is shoving Internet access capability onto its Saturn Consoles, 3DO is looking at doing the same and Bandai is reportedly working on an Internet browser version of Pippin, a product that Apple originally envisaged only as a CD-ROM player and games console. If you are wondering what Microsoft is up to, well frankly – so does Microsoft. Bill Gates keeps making vague noises about the need for a cheap information appliance to access Internet services, but little of substance has so far emerged.
By Chris Rose
It’s little wonder really since the personal computer remains the de facto standard for accessing the Internet today and any move to damage the status quo must be unnerving. But are these consoles really a good idea? Might not the heretical truth be that the most appropriate way to surf the net is to use a desktop computer? A demonstration of CD-Online Ltd’s Compact Disk-interactive-based Internet browser made some of the potential shortcomings of the console approach apparent. To be fair, CD-i is an old machine, its not particularly fast and it currently lacks a keyboard. Nonetheless, problems with little things like screen resolution, and HyperText Mark-up Language and software support are going to be general headaches for the new-wave machines. Since people will presumably be sitting on their sofas, rather that crouched in front of their tellies to use this box, and since television screen resolution falls far short of that of a computer monitor, font size has to be enlarged substantially. Result? A lot of tedious scrolling to move around what would normally be a full-screen page on a personal computer. It may seem a small thing, until you try to use it. Software support is going to be another problem for the new consoles. CD-Online, for example has commissioned its own, tweaked Web browser for the machine. Fair enough, except that with the speed at which Netscape et al are moving the HyperText Mark-up Language standard on, keeping up has proved a problem. Some HTML tags go un-decoded and appeared raw on the screen. The result can be a mess and it is a mess that will get worse, rather than better. One of the delights of the Internet is the speed and strength of software development and support – another day, another innovation. No doubt the console builders will argue that such things as software innovation are important only to geeks; that the Mr or Ms Average will be happy looking at regular Web pages, perhaps sending some electronic mail and browsing news groups.
Well maybe, but what happens when the Averages discover that half the pages they are trying to access use Netscape 2 extensions, or include real-audio soundtracks, or include CUSeeMe two-way video conferencing links, or need a Digicash client to access? Are the console builders going to commit themselves to keeping abreast of all the latest innovations? And if they don’t, aren’t their customers – who bought this thing as a one-stop easy information appliance – going to get a bit annoyed by the error messages, the badly formatted screens, the server-push animations that just don’t work? The Internet’s strength is its almost infinite flexibility: with a desktop machine the chances are that the user at least has the choice of amending their software base – usually for free. And it’s not just the software requirements that change, the hardware specifications for the ideal Internet machine keep changing too. A year ago the idea of putting a microphone into the box would have looked positively esoteric. The trouble with packaging an Internet browser as a consumer appliance is that the applications keep changing. Sun’s Java may come to the rescue here. If – and it is still a big if – the Sun-distributed, cross-system language takes off and it becomes the choice of Internet software developers, then dynamically downloaded software will ensure that the consoles are supplied with the code they need to cope with the new data types. No wonder Ellison, McNealy and Hauser like Java. And no wonder that Bill Gates looks at the thing askance.