It seems that just about everybody who is anybody in the network development arena has decided that, even if you don't know where you should be right now, you've got to be there carrying an internet appliance or you're dead meat.
A recent report from IDC, The Global Appliance Market Review, tells us that more than 11 million of the things were sold last year at a combined value of some £1.5bn, and that by 2004 that should increase to a whopping £11bn and 89 million units sold.
No wonder, then, that the likes of Cisco, Compaq, Intel and Microsoft are chasing a large bite of this particularly juicy commercial cherry.
Repositioning is in
Acquisitions and market repositioning are the order of the day. Cisco bought developer InfoGear Technology in February. You will have heard of InfoGear for its nifty iPhone device, but you can bet Cisco was more interested in its network management software - a nice, ready-made package that enables remote management of internet devices by service providers.
Running on a Sun Solaris server, this software is interesting in that it goes from handling billing and security, to multiple subscriber and device management and presentation management. Throw in parental filtering capability and data synchronisation, and you have the perfect partner for jumping into the application service provision bed.
Compaq has opted for repositioning to encourage confidence and put a volatile year behind it. The company will, unsurprisingly, concentrate on building revenue growth in the high-end server market, but also on the non-PC internet appliance arena. Those big new Alpha servers will spearhead the high-end stuff, but the internet appliance end is much more interesting.
It will incorporate everything from palm-sized Pocket PCs, such as the iPAQ H3630, to CE-based thin clients with only Citrix pre-installed for remote access, and legacy-free desktop replacements under the iPAQ branding.
Be Incorporated, the firm that produces the BeOS operating system, has also announced a shift of resources to focus on internet appliances. Being developed under the codename of Stinger is a software product that will deliver information and entertainment to internet appliances by way of the web (browser, streaming audio and video).
It's easy to see the appeal in such appliances - low entry-level costs and low TCO, essentially. But it's less easy to define what an internet appliance is, beyond the obvious answer of 'marketing buff'. Is it a PDA, a legacy-free USB-driven desktop replacement, or maybe that iPhone that combines traditional telephony with a web access device? I have even seen a fridge that claims to be more internet appliance than domestic appliance, combining beer storage facilities with an LCD panel embedded into the door that provides a full internet connection.
Everyone seems to have a different interpretation of what 'IA' means, and everyone is convinced they have the money maker sitting on their development desk. I've been trying to put together a list of core components to make a kosher internet appliance. The best I can come up with is that it must enable easy access to server-held data, have seamless integration of hardware and software, and it must be portable and relatively inexpensive.
So, does anyone have it? Are you holding the Holy Grail of the network industry that will keep your job safe and your children overweight and well educated?
I believe that I may own such a thing, my Sega Dreamcast. Beyond connecting to the internet to order my free copy of Chu Chu Rocket, I can't say I've used its internet capabilities much - too busy playing France in my virtual European Cup finals. So we'd better add another essential: make sure you can't play games on it.
Or you could just wait a couple of years until the combination of a more advanced Wap implementation together with broadband mobile phone network technology takes the ball out of the computer companies' playground and throws it firmly into the hands of the mobile phone companies...
Davey Winder is an IT consultant, broadcaster and award winning technology journalist.
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