Metricom WebPad offers a taste of the future

High-speed wireless service provider Metricom has partnered with National Semiconductor to develop a WebPad device that will provide wireless Internet access at speeds of up to 128Kbit/sec, company officials said at Comdex.

The WebPad Metro, which should be available in parts of the US early next year, was shown for the first time at a press event at the Comdex trade show.

A WebPad is a simple, portable Internet access appliance that consists essentially of a tablet device with an LCD (liquid crystal display) and software for accessing Web content and e-mail. Metricom's device is powered by National Semiconductor's Geode processor and runs Microsoft's Windows CE operating system. Applications on the device include Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser for Web access, Windows Media Player for downloading multimedia content, and Pocket Word, a lightweight version of Microsoft Word.

The Geode chip was designed to meet the low cost, low power requirements of Internet appliances, and is being shown in a dozen or more Internet appliances at the show.

What makes the Metricom device unique is its high-speed wireless capabilities, which should allow users to download rich Web content, such as music and MPEG (Motion Picture Experts Group) video clips, from anywhere within Metricom's coverage area.

The product initially will carry a hefty price tag of just under $US1000, thanks to the cost of components such as the LCD screen, said Mike Polacek, vice president of National Semiconductor's Internet appliance division. In time, those component costs are expected to come down, allowing such appliances to become affordable for a broader user base.

Metricom's Ricochet 128Kbit/sec service is available on a fairly restricted coverage, but despite that the product is an example of how far WebPads have come since they were first shown at Comdex here two years ago, said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies.

"Two years ago these products really didn't work that well. Now they bring a wireless connection and full Web browsing capabilities, and suddenly they provide a platform that you can really build on," Bajarin said.

Bajarin and other panellists said WebPads and other Internet appliances, such as set-top boxes and Web-enabled game consoles, like Sony's Playstation 2, have reached a level of development where they are ready to break into the mainstream.

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