Wireless web tablets due this year

We've heard plenty of hype in the last year about the emerging species "Internet appliance," a group of low-cost electronic devices that bypass the PC altogether and offer direct Internet access. But the talk is vague, leaving us to wonder just what such an appliance will look like. An interactive toaster oven? A multimedia fridge?

Two devices currently in development may be a more likely result: the Web tablet. About the size of a thick magazine, with a touch-screen LCD (liquid-crystal display), these devices use radio frequencies to connect to a base unit, which plugs into your PC or directly into a phone or cable-modem jack. You can have mobile access to the Web anywhere within range of the base unit -- probably around 500 feet.

Cyrix was the first to promote the idea back at 1998's Fall Comdex trade show, demonstrating a prototype of its WebPad device.

Coming this summer

Cyrix's WebPad model seems to have the most momentum at this stage of the game. The company is working with several manufacturers and expects the first consumer models to hit stores this summer, according to Forrest Norrod, senior director of Cyrix's systems and software development.

"This product has gained more OEM (original equipment manufacturer) interest than almost anything I've seen in my career," Norrod says.

The WebPad design model is based on a version of Cyrix's integrated MediaGX processor and has a 10.4-inch LCD touch screen. The prototype has 16MB of RAM, 8MB of ROM, built-in speakers and microphone, and dual Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports to connect a keyboard or mouse.

The design supports multiple operating systems, connection formats, and browsers, giving manufacturers plenty of room to customise their models, Norrod says.

For example, the base unit can be built to support a dial-up connection, a cable modem, or both. The design accommodates several operating systems, including Windows CE, an embedded version of Windows NT, and the low-memory QNX.

As for pricing, Norrod expects to see initial models sell in the $US400 to $500 range. Some companies may subsidise the cost by selling packaged ISP (Internet service provider) deals, just as wireless phone services offer cheap cell phones.

"I would expect to see sub-$400 models by the end of the year," Norrod adds.

But will it sell?

Will people spend $500 for what's essentially a closed-system Web terminal when they can get a full desktop PC for the same price?

The price is actually about right, says Kevin Hause, a market analyst for International Data Corp. (IDC).

"There's the question of how you are going to sell this when you've got sub-$500 PCs on the market," Hause says. "But this is going to be something that appeals to people who already have a PC, I think. They'll see this as complementary."

The mobility and design will appeal to others, Hause adds.

"It has some advantages a desktop system doesn't," Hause says. "The price is low enough to appeal to others besides rich aficionados."

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