Analysis of IT news

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The need of a web surfing appliance

There is definitely a need (and a market) for Web surfing devices. The signs? Current computer offers (both desktop and laptop) are widely overshooting a whole class of users: those who only want to surf the Web.

Modern computers are completely overkill when it comes to surf the Web. You don't need Windows Vista and a quad-core Pentium for that (nor the latest Mac for that matter). As a result, a whole category of customers are not only overpaying but are also facing the downsides of an overly complex product: an unnecessary complex way to do simple things, technical glitches, viruses, etc.

Maybe the most day-to-day annoying part is the time it takes to boot a computer. If you read this column, it probably happened to you: you were ready to go out, but as you leave the house you remembered you forgot to note down some information from the Web. Maybe it was the time of the movie, maybe the address of the restaurant or you forgot to print the map where you're going. But unfortunately you already shut down your computer. Those few seconds of web access cost you several minutes of your computer booting and shutting down again. Modern computers are not designed at all for a quick, short access to the Internet.

The concept of a web surfing device is almost as old as the Web, but it hasn't really materialized yet. Part of the reason is that most solutions have tried to replace the PC, whereas it should try to replace it only for the least demanding users. It should also try to target non-consumers which too many companies forget. The ideal device would indeed only contain a Web browser. No word processor or photo album software. As Web applications have greatly increased in power (think Google Maps), we do more and more over the Web.

This means that Windows has to go as it is way too fat. But taking a lightweight PC and slap it with a stripped down version of Linux won't cut it (I tried). There needs to be a tighter integration than that. Maybe it's a lightweight version of Linux and Firefox or Mac OS X / Safari with some custom hardware? Who knows. But Microsoft is unlikely to come up with a real solution. Redmond has indeed very little incentive to cannibalize its lucrative Windows market, and it has always been keen on cramming features. The first thing it would try to do would be to tie the device to MS-Office.

A first market would be the home web appliance market: a device, either with its own screen or using the TV's, that you turn on and off to immediately surf the Web. Something behaving more like a TV than a computer, even if technically it's more the latter.

Sadly, there is no real offer right now. There was WebTV, but it hasn't been really going anywhere since it got acquired by Microsoft (not surprisingly).

The closest would be Apple with its Apple TV. If the device currently doesn't have a Web browser nor an Internet connection (it connects to the computer using Wi-Fi), it certainly can as it's powered by Mac OS X. And it looks more like an appliance than a computer.

The second market would be the portable web device market: this would target people who are on the road and want to surf the Web more conveniently than they can today. Right now there are two options: the laptop and the PDA. The laptop has all the downsides of a computer (see above) on top of being rather heavy and a PDA has too small a screen. Even with an Apple iPhone you don't surf the Web for hours sitting at a Starbucks.

Here as well, there is no real offer. There are however a few existing devices that could evolve into a decent Web appliance.

The iPhone sounds promising and its underlying lightweight version of Max OS X has definitely some great potential, but it remains to be seen whether Apple will come up with a larger screen for its glamorous phone.

The other promising candidate is Amazon's Kindle. Although it's an e-book, it has a sizable screen, is portable, cheaper than any laptop and supports 3G. But once again, there is no guarantee that Amazon will even consider turning it into a Web device.

Last but not least, if MIT's one laptop per child (the XO) isn't geared for the Western world (no need of a crank), it contains several modules that can be useful for a Web device. The XO is indeed a system that consumes limited resources and as little power as possible at a great price ($200).

Or maybe a company will one day design its own appliance.


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