Net appliances yet to realise corporate potential

Audrey, 3Com's Internet appliance aimed at consumers, is the latest in a series of similar launches from big IT brands in the US....

Audrey, 3Com's Internet appliance aimed at consumers, is the latest in a series of similar launches from big IT brands in the US. But while companies attack the consumer market they could be missing out on the potential for such devices in the corporate and public sector environment, writes Danny Bradbury

With the need for low-cost Internet kiosks in public places such as libraries and railway stations, Internet appliances could be a blessing for troubled public sector IT managers. But, in a similar vein, placing kiosks in company boardrooms for quick information access, or in corporate reception areas for visitors could prove to be another lucrative market for the emerging Internet appliance products.

Audrey is a large electronic organiser with Internet and e-mail connections. Favourite Web sites can be preset and selected using a dial. The screen is touch sensitive so there is no need for a keyboard or mouse.

Other companies working on products for this yet-to-be-proven market include Compaq, with its iPaq Internet Appliance, and eMachines which, with Microsoft, is working on an appliance designed to work with the MSN Internet service.

PC manufacturer Gateway is also said to be working on a model. And even Larry Ellison isn't giving up. Unfazed by the failure of his original network computing model, Ellison's New Internet Computer Company is touting a Linux-based device designed to offer low cost Web surfing.

So, why haven't such models taken off in the UK yet?

For one thing, the market is still new, and many products have yet to be launched on this side of the Atlantic. Take Audrey, for example, which is unlikely to ship in the UK for months. Ron Vitale, senior director of marketing for the Internet appliance division within 3Com, explained that the primary problem is adapting the channel mechanism within the device for UK use.

Todd Beetcher, business development director at Netpliance, another network appliance manufacturer, predicts great things for the corporate market, particularly in the ASP space. "The content is like the drug, and the delivery device is like the needle," he said, arguing that low-cost clients could become popular in this area. "It is a matter of necessity to get to the content," he said.

Despite Beetcher's conviction that these appliances will become addictive, the success of the market is far from guaranteed. After all, the network computer initiative fell flat on its face in the 1990s to the extent that some companies were giving away network computers as loss leaders for larger server sales.

However, if it does turn out to be a viable market, then it could be a great way to inject some new life into a mature desktop client market.

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