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You say mobile, we say appliance

The American way of thin-client surfing bears little resemblance to the UK's handheld obsessions

To quote the memorable phrase, the US and the UK are two countries divided by a common language. There can’t be a better example of this than the web appliance bandwagon, which shows no sign of abating here.

As we’ll see, the underlying principles are universal, potentially lucrative and – at the very least – merit continued examination. But although the words are the same, when you hear the term web appliance defined by an American, my advice is to adopt the dismissive New Yorker expression, “talk to the hand”.

Over here, the definition is of a cut-down Net access device, such as the I-Opener and Microsoft’s MSN Companion, that’s typically subsidised using a service contract.

Appliances should interest corporate users for two reasons, so the theory goes:

  • They’re the great white hope for expanding the base of potential e-business consumers. PC penetration in the home is about 25% of UK households, and enticing the majority will obviously change the market demographic enormously, giving the forward thinking business a first mover advantage.
  • The subsidised model gives you a new way of capturing customers – and the cost of acquiring users is the most critical part of an e-business’s balance sheet. It’s also a way of rewarding your big spenders, those customers who bring in the most money, and who, of course, you most want to keep.

But although an undeniably attractive proposition, web appliances of the I-Opener variety finding little traction in the UK. There are a couple of reasons, principally that the barrier to Net access in Britain isn’t really the prohibitive cost of computing devices, but the cost of web access.

We take broadband Digital Subscriber Line or cable access for granted now in the US, and plug-and-go wireless home networks are a commodity. On the other hand, Europeans have a much more advanced wireless infrastructure that’s the envy of many Americans, who typically pay for incoming cellular calls.

The US, too, is barely emerging from the stone age of wireless data. When I place my Psion alongside my infra-red mobile phone here to collect e-mail – a common enough sight anywhere in Europe – it invariably draws a small crowd making astonished “oohs” and “aahs”. I swear I’ve even seen the locals trying to recreate this after I’ve left, using similar-shaped pieces of wood, in the manner of Pacific cargo cults, but that may just be my imagination.

For Europeans, wb appliances are very nearly here already in the shape of rich integrated mobile phones. Within six months such devices – beginning with phones from Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, Psion and Sanyo – will be widely available, and capable of using the always-on packed data services. Early trials suggest modest speeds, but a transformed experience. Impulse shopping will never have been easier.

Now you don’t have to be a wireless operator yourself to reward your customers with these devices, although some kind of partnership with the terminal manufacturers or the networks will be essential.

But a word of warning. A business plan that involves keeping your customers inside a “walled garden” – restricting web content to predefined destinations – is attractive on paper, but could be disastrous in practice. Humans have a knack, when given a wall, of clambering over it into the great unknown.

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