From the cellular phone to
the microwave oven or the fax-over-the-Net device, lots of
common tools evolve by getting communications enhancements.
Companies should use these new devices to improve
communication with non-technical people.
The permanent fall of prices for processors and
electronic equipment creates new opportunities for processor-based
consumer appliances. When additionally these appliances use
telecommunications, lots of new avenues open for communication uses
across the Plain Old Telephone System (POTS), or over the Internet or
other IP networks. We call these communicating consumer appliances
"web appliances" (or "IP appliances"); they could be considered as a
special case of the "Network appliances" we describe in another note.
These devices have however 2 main distinctive
- their main purpose is not
- they are however relying heavily on various
kinds of telephone use.
A good example is the product introduced last year
by 8x8 Inc.: a box containing a CCD camera; this box is
plugged between the regular phone and its wall plug. Set up is done
in a breeze, and if you do the same in some other place, you get a
video conference running across the POTS lines! Sure, this does not
deliver the 24 image frames/ second needed to watch a fluid
video… but the cost of use is the same as for a regular phone
conversation, installation is done in a snap that even your mother
could handle… (This product has received a lukewarm response
since its introduction, because of some missing functionalities; new
enhancements, namely web-based management, and IP handling, should
address these deficiencies by providing functions like IP support,
security monitoring and alerts over a network.)
The first web appliance is undisputedly
the webcam, a camera which delivers a permanent flow of
digital images to a web server, where the flow can be
fetched from and viewed across an IP network on the
Internet. Since images appear with a low resolution on CRT
screens, the camera can be a low-res device, hence the
appearance of CCD cameras with VGA-like resolution (or
¼ VGA); these 100% electronic devices comply with
Moore’s law and accordingly their prices decrease
Another example of IP appliance is the
Applio, which again sits between a regular phone and its wall
plug, and which transfers voice over an IP network, the parameters of
which (phone number, user ID, password, etc) are set up in the Applio
box with a standard touch-tone phone. If your correspondent has a
similar setup, a phone call to him/her will cost you, instead of 1
Long Distance call, just the price of 2 local calls and of 2
subscriptions to the Internet or another IP network.
This last product evidences a key requirement for
these appliances: they need to communicate with their peers,
preferably over an IP network, or at least through gateways connected
to an IP network. Thus, the IP appliance is clearly composed of a
communicating appliance connectable to an IP network.
Similar products have already been
- The NetFax, e.g. by Sagem,
transmits fax data over POTS as well as IP networks when this is
- The NetPhone, or ScreenPhone
e.g. by Alcatel, derives from the French "Minitel"
videotext terminal : Minitel’s simplicity of use for
videotext transmission over POTS is a good example of what should
be a general-user Internet terminal with push-button actions and
instant availability (which is not the case of the PC, even as an
Internet device!). Such setup have already been proposed and just
received the strong backup from the IBM recent agreement
with France Telecom.
- The web TV is another alternative for
mass access to the Internet, relying on a "ready to plug and go"
box to put on top of the TV.
- The cellular phone, becoming 100%
digital, are ready to get enhanced by computing power, as
evidenced in the recent joint Sharp/ Alcatel
product, or the Nokia 9000x –and the Nokia venture
with Ericsson (and Psion) in the Symbian
- The "home infocenter appliance"
recently presented by NCR is a thought-provoking
demonstration of IP-appliance: the thesis is that every home will
need an information center, which could be hosted by the microwave
oven enhanced by additional peripherals like screen, keyboard,
etc., and which would be a perfect base to shop and pay over the
Source: International Data
The Technical Requirements
The main technical requirements for these
- Ease of setup and use, e.g. manageability with
a simple web browser.
- Access to an IP network with sufficient
- Compelling functionality which highly enhances
the main function of the appliance.
This will certainly require a lot of computing
power, with a memory footprint as low as possible, and an embedded OS
capable of real-time or near-real-time processing.
There is currently no established leader on
this market, and the market size (see graph and table below) will
certainly attract lots of new entrants, most of them startups.
Current actors on this embedded-OS market are presently fighting to
take the largest part possible of the market. Microsoft, with
Windows CE (a resurrection of previous failed attempts under
the Modular Windows and Windows at Work banners), as
well as the recently-hyped Embedded NT, is certainly far
behind established software houses like QNX (and its
quasi-real-time Unix), Symbian and its Epoch
(currently in the Psion PDAs and the Nokia 9000i), and
development environments like the Hyperpanel from the French
Cojyp or those from Cygnus Solution; also part of the
fight are Motorola, Sun (with its Sparc chips as well
as the recently acquired Chorus micro-kernel for real-time),
and, almost unnoticed, the games-consoles manufacturers
(Nintendo, Sega, Sony) while some other
contenders would also appreciate being part of the game, eg
allow to deliver low cost communication functions to
technically-illiterate persons, i.e. most people! Thus, they
are a good tool to deliver technically-advanced functions
without excessive technical support. Companies should
consider using such devices for:
- Information and
technology dissemination towards company’s
relationship enhancement through web access and
information, thus empowering customers.
This implies that they
need today :
- To start pilot
cases both internally and with selected
- To check that they
will be able to run IP data (and voice) transfers in
parallel to their own IP flows, either as separate
non-miscible dataflows over the company’s lines, or
through an external IP flow.