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The Web Appliances Convertir en PDF Version imprimable Suggérer par mail
15-04-2002

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 characteristics:
  • their main purpose is not computer-related;
  • 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.)

 

 

At the beginning…

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 permanently.

 

 

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 presented :

  • The NetFax, e.g. by Sagem, transmits fax data over POTS as well as IP networks when this is possible.
  • 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 company.
  • 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 Internet.

 

pc-ip-appliances-shipments

 

 

(USA, K-units) 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002

PCs

31,478 36,323 41,576 46,397 51,139 55,990

Appliances

1,433 3,634 8,330 16,589 26,439 41,786

Total

32,911 39,957 49,906 62,986 77,578 97,776

% appliances

4 9 17 26 34 43

Source: International Data Corporation, 1998

 

 

 

The Technical Requirements

The main technical requirements for these appliances are:

  1. Ease of setup and use, e.g. manageability with a simple web browser.
  2. Access to an IP network with sufficient bandwidth.
  3. 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 Be.

 

 

Recommendation

These devices 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 personnel.
  • Customer relationship enhancement through web access and information, thus empowering customers.

This implies that they need today :

  1. To start pilot cases both internally and with selected customers.
  2. 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.

 

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