Ten years ago, the next big thing in tech was supposed to be the Internet appliance: a device that offered tech newbies a simpler and cheaper way to get onto the Internet.
Within the span of only a few months a host of such devices hit the market--products such as 3Com's Audrey, Netpliance's I-opener along with machines from Sony, Gateway, and Compaq. They were all aimed at trying to offer the Web without the cost and complexity of a full-fledged computer.
Around the same time, makers of other products like the Kerbango Internet radio saw an opportunity for products that tapped the power of the Internet for a single purpose. Some predicted that the industry was poised for rapid and dramatic growth.
Unfortunately, the products ended up being either too limited or far slower than a PC and nearly as costly, and the category disappeared as quickly as it had emerged.
Still, it was a nice idea. And, the funny thing is, now people are actually buying these things.
Devices like the iPad and the Kindle, along with game consoles and Net-connected televisions have shown that there is a market for both devices that are simpler than a PC as well as for products that connect to the Internet for a single purpose.
The notion that prompted the Internet appliance category--that the Web is a powerful tool and there should be many types of on-ramps--was a good one. Unfortunately for the Audrey and her sisters, the timing was all wrong.
First of all, the devices arrived while most people still used dial-up to get on the Internet and few people had a home network. That meant that such devices needed to replace, rather than augment a Web-connected PC. Also, computers were coming down in price thanks to aggressive cost-cutting by Intel and rapidly falling component prices, while the economics of trying to start a new category meant that Net appliances couldn't be sold for less than several hundred dollars.
Today, meanwhile, the Internet flourishes, connectivity abounds, and the cost of building Wi-Fi into a device means that it is possible to sell Net-connected devices for well under $200.
Although born of a completely different heritage, one of the devices that best represents the completion of the Internet appliance vision is Apple's iPad. Press a button and the device is instantly on and with one more push of a finger one is on the Web in seconds.
The Kindle, meanwhile, shows how the Internet can be used, almost invisibly, for a single purpose, such as buying and reading books.
Other devices that one might not think of as Internet appliances nonetheless can also trace their lineage to those clunky devices of old.
Game consoles like the Wii, Xbox 360, and Sony PlayStation all can take advantage of the Internet to a greater or lesser degree to allow for things like Netflix and online gaming. Net-connected televisions using widgets from Yahoo or Google's upcoming Google TV are also borrowing some of the same notions that powered early devices, including WebTV.
There are also a few companies pursuing modern adaptations of those Internet appliances of yore, though this category still has yet to prove it can produce a mass market success.
Chumby, for example, sells devices that cost a little over $100 and offer a quick glance at any number of personalized Web channels--a vision not unlike the Audrey, which downloaded Internet content overnight (it was still a dial-up world) so that it could offer an instant take on news, sports, and weather.
"There's some really great old ideas that just were at the wrong time," said Stephen Tomlin, CEO of Chumby Industries.
Naturally, though, Tomlin likes to distance himself from the devices of old (though he admits to going out and buying an Audrey to see what made it tick.)
"It's about doing things differently and offering more, not less," Tomlin said. "With Chumby the 'more' is that you can get your favorite parts of the Internet streamed to you at a glance, without constantly pecking at icons and launching programs, and you can place this capability inexpensively in any part of your house."
Chumby's success has been modest so far, with several tens of thousands of devices having been sold since its debut in 2008.
Tomlin's hope is to build Chumby's push technology into a range of devices. Just a couple are on the market right now, including the Sony Dash and a Net-connected digital photo frame from Best Buy's Insignia brand.
HP has taken a similar approach with its DreamScreen, an LCD-based device that aims to make the digital photo frame a more intelligent device capable of playing music, showing various types of Web content and more.
The challenge for these devices is that they are far more limited in function than something like the iPad, which can easily be taken from room to room and is useful for a range of tasks beyond just displaying photos and Web content.
Tomlin said he's trying to compete more with the clock radio than the iPad, laptop, or smartphone. "It's the Internet content you love, but just conveniently embedded in more places and always on and available simply at a glance."