It's 1998: Where are all the space-age gadgets?
(IDG) -- Last year's widely unwatched thriller The Saint starred Val Kilmer as a kind of do-gooding, freelance James Bond. He was with-it and wired: A spiffy, and pricey, Nokia 9000 Communicator let him make wireless phone calls, use e-mail and get onto the World Wide Web.
Hollywood can make anything not only look good but perform well - even information appliances. Kilmer's character read the Nokia display with ease, and the system responded to his commands in a snap. In reality, Nokia users complain about the screen, which isn't backlit, and they say the sleek little device is, simply put, slow. In the real world of corporate computing, these things matter. Real-world demands, for now anyway, make information appliances toys rather than tools.
Outside of Hollywood, information appliances can be described as low-cost, easy-to-use devices that give individuals some kind of access to the Internet, according to Steve Kaldor, vice president of consumer device research at International Data Corp. (IDC), a Framingham, Mass., market research company.
Information appliances can be television set-top boxes that blend Internet access with TV, Webphones that can display e-mail or browse the Internet, and, as long as they are connected to the Internet, an array of smart handheld computing devices.
Huge Growth Ahead
IDC estimates that appliance unit shipments in the U.S. will jump from 3.6 million this year to 26.4 million in 2001, compared with PC shipments of 36.3 million this year and 51.1 million in 2001. The figures mean that appliances will grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 96% vs. 12% for PCs.
While the appliances are small, the market is big on hype, forcing MIS to sift through all the glitz to figure out how the devices can actually help. A growing number of companies are concluding, based on small pilot projects, that while most of the basic technology is available, many challenges remain.
Take, for example, Peter Beaman, chief research officer with Eclipsys Corp., a Del Ray Beach, Fla., vendor of clinical information systems. Last fall Beaman jury-rigged a demonstration in which a doctor received, via the Nokia 9000, a simulated automatic alert about a change in a patient's potassium levels. Using the 9000, the doctor was able to access more detailed information through a Web site and then order treatment changes.
"With relatively simple means, we could talk to the network backbone, deliver clinical alerts and let the doctors see lab results and medication history," Beaman said. "The demonstration left little doubt in our minds that this technology is practical."
But Eclipsys still hasn't deployed this capability. The reason: The company needs to complete the rest of its new clinical system, a big chunk of which is being written in Java. "The hard part is the clinical support database," Beaman said. "Once we've done that, we can add this [appliance] functionality fairly easily."
It's this back-end work that constitutes one of the main challenges facing MIS groups trying to exploit the potential of information appliances. Mark Bregman, general manager of IBM's Pervasive Computing group, gives a typical example: A brokerage house customer receives a pager or Webphone alert that one of his stocks has reached a threshold price. Using the appliance, he could then buy or sell the stock at once. But to make this possible, vendors and MIS groups will have to solve security problems, ensure reliable connections, tailor the application display, and even redesign the user interface for a given appliance, Bregman said. Synchronizing data among client appliances, PCs and corporate databases will also take a lot of work, according to several experts.
MIS groups will have to face these software development issues, said Marc Abrams, associate professor of computer science at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. "Because this is not general-purpose software, corporations will have to custom-build it," he said.
There is also a protocol problem. The Internet provides many protocols, such as HTTP and HTML, which form a critical standard foundation for the corporate use of appliances, according to Don Norman, senior technical advisor and all-around appliance guru at Hewlett-Packard Co.'s HP Laboratories in Palo Alto, Calif. But, he said, there is now no standard for "handshaking" protocols, which let appliances automatically negotiate the best way to communicate with each other and with other computers over the 'Net. HP is testing its JetSend protocol at customer sites now for this purpose.
"The technical problem is trivial," Norman claimed. "The hard part is getting everyone to agree on the same protocol."
Finally, there are problems with the devices themselves, problems attributed to poor design, immature technologies, and a focus on high-end, and hence expensive, products. The Nokia 9000, for instance, costs between $800 and $1,200.
On the technical side, Webphones have limited displays, their speed is slow, and their miniature keyboards are awkward to use. And systems that use handwriting recognition software, such as the Nino from Phillips Mobile Computing Group, still require users to make adjustments in their writing style. If these challenges can be met, some observers claim to see a bright future for appliances.
"Information access is simply not convenient today," said Greg Wolff, group manager for product marketing with Sun Microsystems, Inc.'s embedded and consumer products group.
"Right now, it's all through the desktop PC. Our view is that this is a bottleneck. These other devices, the appliances, will make information more accessible. And then people will go to the networks more often for more things."
Eclipsys' Beaman agreed. "My personal view is that PCs won't go away," he said. "But I think we'll be surrounded by devices that will provide access to network-based services. Some will be PCs, and some won't."
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