The ‘Wonder Appliances’


Affordable, easy-to-use, ‘in-
formation appliances’ like
the push button access to the internet or pocket sized email are just a tip of the iceberg in the world of ‘wonder appliances’.
The growing convergence of computing technologies with communications and consumer electronics is rapidly shifting the industry’s focus from multi-purpose desktops to application-specific devices designed for personal information access and other needs. These emerging devices, known as information appliances (IAs), are converting information into a real and tangible world, with people being able to get information anytime, anywhere.
IDC (International Data Corporation) forecasts that 55.7 million units will be sold in 2002, representing a 76% annual growth rate from 1998 in the US alone. Two trends drive the mass market – increased Internet use and persistent demand for convenience. Another key aspect of information appliances will be the integration of analog technologies with the digital and IAs are likely to have better abilities to integrate the digital and analog. For example, National Semiconductor, which has ambitions of being in the forefront of the appliances market, has set its heart on set-top boxes,


Personal Access Devices (PADs), and thin clients.
Hundreds of internet software programs have been written for the x86-based set-top box that provide the most advanced form of interactive entertainment and information gathering. That’s the idea behind National’s Geode Orion, a set top box reference platform developed for the appliance market.
Intel has also introduced faster versions of PII for lower powered applications. “Lower-powered” in this context means a 9-13 W, depending on the clock frequency, the amount of L2 cache and the level of integration. Intel announced two PII chips in surface-mount BGA packages and a pair of PII embedded modules. Each has 256K of on-chip L2 cache, coupled to the CPU core over a full speed back side bus.
Personal Access Devices
Almost everybody who is somebody in the IT industry is now angling for a slice of the appliance market. Take these examples for instance. Sun Microsystem’s Java software is being used in everything from smart cards to smart washing machines. Now Sun’s Jini software will let all those Java devices talk to each other over the internet. Microsoft is trying to dominate pastures outside the PC realm as well. Its WebTV service has more than 700,000 subscribers. Its pushing Windows CE software into appliances, and it has unvieled a Jini-like technology called Universal Plug-and-Play. HP has recently unveiled the CapShare handheld scanner and the Jornada handheld PC. To reach out to the wider market of the PC-less masses, AOL is talking to makers of internet phones, set-top boxes and other gear about offering its service on such devices.


This year Sony is expected to deliver a batch of information-based devices, including smart picture frames, digital cameras and hand held cameras with slots for its Memory Stik module. These gumstick size modules can store email, digital phones etc. Sony is also working on home networks so that digital camcorders/cameras, TVs and other devices can share information. Sharp is making a $ 150 pocket-sized device called TelMail, which allows you to send and receive email by holding it up to a phone. Philips, the leading WebTV set top box manufacturer will make a ‘digital VCR’ set-top based on TiVo’s technology later this year. It is considering adding wireless handheld displays so viewers can receive email or info from the Net. Quantum, Seagate and Western Digital, the disk drive makers are targeting consumer appliances. Quantum drives are in TiVo’s set top box, Seagate was an early investor in Web TV and Western is working with Sony on home info appliances.
Start ups too have carved up a bit of the market. Tivo Replay Networks, using traditional PC hard drives, make ‘digital VCRs’ that let you store your favorite shows. Qubit Technology has three appliances on the drawing board, including a $350 tablet for checking email and Web browsing. It works wireless within 30 feet of its cradle. Aplio’s $199 Aplio/Phone gizmo lets you make long distance calls free over the internet, and is likely to prove a boon in India, once internet telephony gets the nod.


DIPANKAR DAS

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