The past year has been a rough one for home Internet appliances, which are intended to give consumers a simple, low-cost way to surf the Web and send and receive e-mail. Products from 3Com and Netpliance have come and gone, while offerings from Compaq and Gateway are struggling in a largely apathetic market. The appliances to date have shared a basic and overwhelming problem: They were not cheap, simple, or good enough to make them compelling alternatives to low-end PCs.
Making a good Internet appliance is harder than it looks. But I expected that if anyone could succeed, it would be Sony Electronics (SNE), which combines experience in PCs with a sure hand in consumer electronics. Sony's new eVilla Network Entertainment Center is indeed the best appliance I have seen, but it still has big problems. I doubt that it poses any threat to the PC market.
The eVilla, which retails for around $500, plus $21.95 per month for required Internet access from Sony partner Earthlink Inc. (ELNK), suffers from a clunky design. It's big and heavy, which is the unfortunate upshot of a sound decision to forgo flat-panel displays. Even with the recent collapse of prices, there's no way to put a big, sharp LCD screen into a device that costs just $500. So Sony opted instead for a 15-in. CRT, rotated 90 degrees to give a vertical orientation that is more natural for viewing Web pages. It's an outstanding display, whose surface is completely flat both horizontally and vertically, eliminating glare and distortion. But the use of a CRT dictates a design that is over 16 in. deep--not counting the keyboard--and a weight of over 31 lbs. This is one appliance unlikely to find a place on a kitchen counter. The payoff is that unlike smaller appliances, it can display most Web pages without any scrolling.
COMING ATTRACTION. Sony's decisions on networking make less sense. While the eVilla has an Ethernet jack, it is covered and marked "for future use." So you are stuck with stand-alone, dial-up service (though if you have a PC in the house, it can use the same Earthlink account). And the graphics-rich pages that the eVilla displays so prettily can take an eternity to load.
I think Sony's strategy on this point is flawed. If there's a market for appliances, it is as an adjunct to PCs rather than as an alternative. While PCs are workhorses, appliances are best suited for a quick check of e-mail, looking up TV or movie schedules on the Web, and perhaps doing some online shopping. To work best, such an appliance should be connected to a home network with a fast, always-on Internet connection.
The eVilla provides an America Online-style "walled garden" of selected Web sites with built-in links. But the content is vastly narrower than AOL's, and far too many of the links promote other Sony enterprises, including Sony Pictures Entertainment movies and TV shows, Station.com for online games, and the Game Show Network. Most of the other links, including local TV and movie listings, are provided through partnership with Tribune Media Services' Zap2it.com and RealNetworks. Even the hardware is Sony-centric: The eVilla can display pictures from your digital camera, but only if it uses Sony's proprietary MemoryStick, which in practice limits the feature to Sony cameras.
BOFFO BROWSER. There are many good things to be said about the eVilla. It is built on the same National Semiconductor Geode hardware platform as several other appliances, and its software, based on the BeIA operating system from Be Inc. and a browser from Norway's Opera Software, is the best that I've seen in a consumer appliance. The browser has built-in support for such common media types as Flash animations and Real audio and video for a richer Web experience than most appliances offer. The mail program is also better than most of its type. It allows you both to read downloaded messages and compose new ones while online. In addition to handling picture attachments, it can also display Adobe Acrobat files, though not Microsoft Word or Excel. And it comes with a decent keyboard and a standard mouse.
The bottom line is that the eVilla is another interesting attempt at an appliance. And like the rest, it fails to provide enough value to make it a more attractive choice than a basic $700 PC. If it had the networking horsepower to deliver on its "network entertainment center" billing, it might be a different story. Until it does, it's hard to see how the eVilla will escape the fate of other would-be Internet appliances. By Stephen H. Wildstrom