Based on what you hear and see in the media, you might think that computers and Internet access are about as ubiquitous in American life as television. But the fact is, only about half of all American households own PCs, and perhaps a third are connected to the Net.
With those numbers staying relatively flat even as the cost of computers has plunged, the industry is now betting that the key to getting the rest of us online lies in simpler, single-purpose devices. The first "Web appliances" have hit the market, with many more to follow. Although the limitations of these devices are serious, the promise is great.
EXTREMELY SIMPLE. I spent some time with the i-opener from Netpliance Inc. (www.netpliance.com). This simple device provides for Web browsing and e-mail, both with some restrictions, and nothing else. The best thing about the i-opener is the extreme simplicity of setting it up. It ships configured for your account, so all you do is take it out of the box, plug in power and a phone line, and turn it on. The i-opener dials out, downloads the latest data and any software updates, and you're in business. This is how an appliance is supposed to work.
The opening screen lists categories, such as news and weather, each of which presents information that has already been downloaded. Even while idle, the i-opener automatically dials up periodically to update the information. The Web Guide category offers an assortment of selected Web sites, grouped by subject, or you can type in any Web address.
Despite a slow processor, the i-opener is as speedy as your 56K modem connection will allow (high-speed cable and DSL access is promised for future versions). But the browser has some annoying shortcomings. It cannot run animated features and other Java applets on Web pages. It also seems to have trouble navigating on complex pages. For example, I could not get around the United Airlines site (www.ual.com) because some pages refused to load. I-opener can play RealAudio, but not video. The good news is that as browser upgrades become available, they will be downloaded and automatically installed.
The i-opener includes a simple but serviceable e-mail program. Like most non-PC mail, it can only handle simple text and picture attachments--no Microsoft Word or Excel documents, no video clips. You have to use Netpliance as your Internet service and e-mail provider. (The i-opener costs considerably more to build than its $199 price; Netpliance's business model depends on revenues from selling Internet access for $21.95 a month.)
The 10-inch liquid-crystal display is a bit small but works fine, and the full-size keyboard is good enough for touch-typists. I found the combination of a rubber pointing device at the upper right of the keyboard and two mouse buttons at the upper left awkward to use, but a standard mouse is a $20 option. You can get a Canon inkjet printer for $99.
If all you want from the Internet is e-mail, there are a couple of even cheaper alternatives available. The MailStation from Cidco (www.cidco.com) is a very simple device to send and receive e-mail over a dial-up connection. The monochrome LCD can only handle text messages, and the keyboard is too small for comfortable touch-typing, but the setup, like the i-opener's, is idiot-proof. The MailStation costs $149 plus $9.95 a month for service or $200 with a year's service. The similar e-Mail PostBox from VTech (www.vtechworld.com) costs $100 plus $90 for a year's service but suffers from a strange, disabling defect: The keyboard has no right shift key. I found it nearly impossible to type on.
KITCHEN READY. These appliances are the leading edge of a flood of non-PC Internet tools. Microsoft, for example, is working with several manufacturers on Web Companions, appliances that use a simplified version of Windows CE, currently found on some handheld computers, and a browser more capable than i-opener's. The Microsoft-based devices are tied to the company's MSN Internet service.
Many people may find that these new appliances make attractive adjuncts in the kitchen or elsewhere in the house. Future versions will be more useful because they will hook into home networks and share Internet connections. Even so, PC users may feel they are giving up too much for the sake of simplicity. But if you want an unintimidating introduction to the Web, these new products could be a good place to start.
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