A Taxonomy of Internet Appliances
33 Pages Posted: 15 Nov 2001
Date Written: October 2001
The world is evolving from one in which almost all access to the Internet comes from personal computers (PCs) to one in which so-called Internet appliances (IAs) will make up a greater share of end-user equipment. Today's PC is a general-purpose, highly configurable and extensible device - an "intelligent end-node" of the sort the Internet's designers had in mind. As such, it allows users much freedom of choice (such as which service provider to use, which Web sites to visit, and which new software to download) in exchange for dealing with associated complexity. An IA is a device connected to the Internet, but beyond that there is little consensus on functionality and target markets. There is, however, general agreement that it reduces the level of complexity seen by the user. A variety of approaches to reducing complexity are being pursued. These fall on a spectrum from totally fixing the function of devices, to automating the configuration of more general purpose systems. In the middle are devices whose functions appear more or less fixed to the user, but which retain some limited capability for upgrade through their Internet connection. We argue that truly fixed-function Internet-connected appliances make no sense unless they are extremely cheap, throwaway devices. We speculate that general-purpose end-user equipment will endure but evolve into a more modular form, driven by user frustration with a proliferation of devices with overlapping functionality and the desire for consistency across multiple environments (such as home, car and office). Finally, we observe that most appliances being developed today fall into the middle category. These vary in the degree to which they bind users to particular service providers, both technically and through their business model. Our analysis suggests that appliances in and of themselves do not introduce new opportunities for walling the Internet garden, but that industry players seeking to consolidate control over potential Internet choke points, such as broadband access networks or WAP gateways, may attempt to leverage appliances toward this goal. To the extent that appliances provide services already available over the PC-based Internet, we speculate that such efforts will fail.
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