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Metricom WebPad offers a taste of the future

Network World Fusion

(IDG) -- 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 128K bit/sec, company officials said Sunday.

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

A WebPad is a simple, portable Internet access appliance that consists essentially of a tablet device with an LCD 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.

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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 here this week. 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 video clips, from anywhere within Metricom's coverage area.

The product initially will carry a hefty price-tag of just under $1,000, thanks to the high 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 128K bit/sec service is available today in Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area. Despite the fairly restricted coverage, Metricom's product is an example of how far WebPads have come since they were first shown at Comdex here 2 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.

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

Bajarin highlighted two other appliances powered by Geode processors. One was Honeywell's WebPad, which also connects to the Internet but uses the 802.11b wireless networking standard. The Honeywell device went on sale from the company's Web site Sunday, Bajarin said. 3Com's Audrey appliance, which was launched in the U.S. last month priced at $499, also is based on a Geode processor, he added.

Audrey also uses 802.11b, which is faster than Ricochet, allowing transmission speeds as fast as 11M bit/sec, but ties users to a LAN. Ricochet is a WAN technology, which gives users freedom to move about outdoors, so long as they are within one of Metricom's metropolitan coverage areas.

In his keynote speech Sunday, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates said Pocket PC handheld computers will support Metricom's high-speed wireless service by next year.

About 28 million Internet appliances will be sold worldwide this year, according to market researcher IDC, which defines the category as any non-PC device that connects to the Internet, including television set-top boxes and gaming consoles. That number could almost double to 48 million next year, said Bruce Stephen, a group vice president with IDC.

However, Internet appliances such as WebPads are on "early and shaky ground", because of high prices and the low level of consumer awareness about such products, Stephen said. In addition, vendors have yet to devise a business model that allows them to produce and sell them cost-effectively, he said.

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Metricom, Inc.
National Semiconductor Corp.

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