By Don Dugdale, UniNews Correspondent
Some computer vendors foresee a future when no home will be complete without its own network computer, an all-purpose diskless workstation that downloads all its applications and data from elsewhere, performs a multitude of PC functions, interfaces with the Web and provides the family with a window on the world.
Others see a different picture -- families buying a number of single-purpose electronic gadgets with simple-to-use buttons, each device performing a specific computing function. These appliances would be a lot like blenders, tape recorders and stereo equipment except that their foundation will be in open computing architectures without the user even knowing he or she is using a computer -- or needing to know.
The difference in the two visions defines the split between two marketing models -- those of the computing industry and the consumer electronics industry. The computing industry tries to deliver more hardware options, more capacity, faster machines and a larger variety of cool applications that all run on the same expensive machine. The Sonys and Mitsubishis of the world take a different approach -- selling simple-to-use, single-purpose devices that they can sell cheaply.
A company called Diba, Inc., in Menlo Park, CA, believes that those two worlds are about to be bridged, and they are poised to do it -- through open computing. "Most analysts I have seen, and consumers we have talked to, have said that the network computer, as a consumer device, is really a flawed concept," says Joe Gillach, Diba's vice president of marketing. "What people are looking at in the consumer space is more what we term an information appliance."
The devices Gillach speaks of would be things like a smart telephone that provides Web access, or an electronic recipe viewer for cooks, or a travel planner for accessing transportation and lodging information and making reservations. Diba has developed a technology platform that will provide consumer electronics companies with the software they need to power these devices. Gillach believes devices driven by Diba software will someday abound in the home.
"Our stuff is like Nutrasweet," Gillach says. "We'll go in cakes and in cookies and in soda pop. We're the value-added ingredient that will appear in many different implementations. Retail distribution problems are best left to the consumer electronics companies-that's their bread and butter. We provide a fairly complicated software technology to make these devices become Internet-ready."
Gillach believes those devices will sell because most people aren't interested in technology itself -- just what it provides. "People don't want plastic, they want Tupperware," he says. "People don't want to surf the Web -- they want travel information."
If the Diba vision is correct, consumer electronics will become even more blended with computing. "We believe the PC companies will continue to make inroads in the business enterprise where they've always been successful, the next generation being these network computers," Gillach says. But given the clout and the marketing muscle of the consumer electronics companies, the market for the network computer is going to be small compared to what the consumer electronics companies offer."
Diba has developed a number of application modules, each suited for a specific purpose -- telephony, e-mail, Web access, and others. Beneath those modules are the Diba Application Foundation, consisting of various application programming interfaces (APIs), and platform interface APIs as well. The architecture consists of a microprocessor and microkernel that form the foundation of every information appliance. Open standards such as TCP/IP, the Web's Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) and other open standards form the basis for the architecture.
"Whether you're talking to the network computer people or to the information appliance people, everyone's talking about open foundation architecture," Gillach says. "The Web is an open structure and you need an open architecture to work with that. The highway already exists with the Internet. The technology already exists. All we're doing is kind of shrinking and focusing it. It's just a matter of correct implementation."
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