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Wireless Web tablets due this year

Cyrix's WebPAD is expected to hit stores this summer   

Magazine-size units have wireless Net link and LCDs.

January 8, 1999
Web posted at: 1:49 p.m. EDT (1349 GMT)

by Glenn McDonald

(IDG) -- 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, 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. This week, motherboard designer Anigma is getting into the act, debuting its prototype WebMan unit at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

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.

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"This product has gained more OEM 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 ports to connect a keyboard or mouse.

The design supports multiple operating systems, connection formats, and browsers, giving manufacturers plenty of room to customize 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 $400-to-$500 range. Some companies may subsidize the cost by selling packaged ISP 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 Corporation.

"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."

WebMan: Light, thin

Motherboard designer Anigma will demonstrate its version of a mobile Web tablet at CES. Dubbed the WebMan, the unit runs Windows CE and features a 12.1-inch active-matrix LCD touch screen, built-in speakers, two Type-II PC Card slots, a USB slave port, an infrared port, and an audio port for headphones. The WebMan uses a radio-signal transceiver base unit, but it can also be attached directly to a PC.
Anigma's WebMan   

The prototype at the show features a 56-kbps modem and the Spyglass Mosaic browser, but future models will support cable-modem access and other browsers, says Ed Suski, Anigma research and development engineer.

"Depending on what manufacturers decide to go with, there will be a variety of battery, display, and connectivity options," Suski says. The WebMan is designed so users can manage the touch screen with their fingers alone -- no need for a stylus.

Ease-of-use and comfort are the main selling points of a mobile, cordless Web tablet, Suski says. The prototype model weighs less than 3 pounds and is about 1 inch thick.

"The idea is to change what's now a kind of uncomfortable, lean-forward activity into a more comfortable, lean-back situation," he said.

It's too early to make predictions, but Anigma's goal is to work with manufacturers to ship consumer models by the end of year, says Curtis Drever, Anigma vice president. Prices should range from $500 to $1000, depending on configuration, Drever adds.

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