A lot of today's computer equipment does it all. Multifunction devices fax, scan, print, and nearly write sales letters and reports themselves. Notebook computers come with business productivity software, Internet connectivity--even cameras and software for videoconferencing. Manufacturers, it seems, keep piling on the bells and whistles, making equipment increasingly complicated.
But there's something to be said for getting back to the basics--and some of the latest technology rolling out now, and particularly in the next six months, will do just that. Commonly referred to as information appliances, these tools perform one or two basic functions quickly, easily and effectively. Although they offer limited functionality and come in various configurations (the physical size and case), they focus on ease of use.
Across The Board
What exactly is an information appliance? Presently, the term is being bandied about the technology industry rather loosely and is attached to a variety of equipment. In essence, however, information appliances allow for the creation, transmission or reception of information using powerful yet uncomplicated features.
"An information appliance is a piece of computing equipment with very targeted functionality," confirms Matthew Nordan, a computing strategies analyst at technology market research firm Forrester Research. Information appliances typically take one or two features you're already familiar with, such as faxing or receiving stock quotes through the Internet, and incorporate them into a simple device, such as a cell phone, a pager--even a commercial product like your microwave.
Hewlett-Packard's CapShare 910 is one example of an information appliance already on the market. This small, portable device has a simple purpose: to capture, store and share paper-based information. Press the capture button, run this CD player-sized device over a business card, magazine article or client contract, and it automatically converts all the data into digital format. The information can then be viewed on the built-in LCD screen, sent to any infrared-equipped printer or imported directly into a desktop PC or handheld device for e-mailing or faxing.
The latest version of the CapShare 910 ($699 street; http://www.capshare.hp.com) also offers users the ability to share data with all of Hewlett-Packard's Windows CE 2.0 handheld and palmtop PCs. It has an extended battery life; rechargeable NiMH batteries (included) allow it to capture and work with up to 100 pages of information before having to recharge. Improved PC application integration supports the TIFF file format in addition to PDF.
Hewlett-Packard's latest version merely improves on the CapShare 910's basic functionality. Information appliances like these empower mobile professionals to complete work, capture information, and communicate simply and easily. They take the focus off how the equipment works and improve business productivity.
The way companies access information on the Net is also about to change. In the near future, you won't necessarily need a desktop or laptop computer to log on--you'll be able to surf the Net in ways never before possible.
That's because the majority of information appliances will give users the ability to send and retrieve information via the Internet. New Internet devices will offer timely updates to specialized content, including news, stock quotes and business-related information. Some will even allow you to wirelessly access content directly from the Internet. All the information will be customizable according to users' specific needs and preferences as well.
Information appliances that perform these functions will take a number of forms, including cell phones, pagers and Internet-specific devices. Integrated into simple units, reliability and ease-of-use will remain their strong points.
A prime example of this kind of information appliance is 3Com's Palm VII, due out later this year. The first handheld device to offer wireless Internet access, the Palm VII (expected to have a street price under $800; http://www.3com.com) will be able to access Web content from partner sites, as well as receive short e-mail messages. Its ability to collect personalized information from the Internet will make it a true information appliance, in addition to its already useful business productivity and organizational features.
One basic problem with all small devices designed as information appliances, however, is their limited ability to retrieve, store and display content. But there are ways around that. The Palm VII, for instance, will utilize a new model for accessing Internet information called "Web clipping." Web clipping is a means of extracting specific information from a Web site, thus eliminating extraneous information and graphics that often bog these products down. Several providers are making their Web content available for Web clipping via the Palm VII; ABCNews.com, E*TRADE, The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition and Yahoo! already plan to do so.
To access content and send e-mail, the Palm VII comes with a built-in two-way radio, integrated antenna and wireless Internet service called Palm.Net. Users simply raise the antenna, which calls up a screen containing a list of applications. By tapping on one of the listed items with a stylus, users can call up another screen known as a Palm query application.
The query application allows users to define the desired information--stock quotes, flight schedules, movie tickets--and then send the query to the Internet. Within seconds, a Web clipping is returned on the Palm VII screen. Special formatting prevents the consumption of large amounts of Internet bandwidth between the device and the Internet, ensuring fast delivery of information. And because the wireless radio isn't activated until a query is sent by a user, the process of accessing the Internet is done with minimum power requirements.
The Palm VII organizer will include a new iMessenger application for instantly sending and receiving Internet messages wirelessly as well. It will give users the ability to instantly send notes to any standard e-mail address from virtually anywhere in the United States via the internal wireless radio (rather than having to synchronize the device with a PC as in current models).
All this means faster delivery and receipt of information via a small, handheld device. It's also a sure signal many new information appliances will be hitting the market soon. Expect to be able to get stock quotes, news feeds and Internet-based information from Web phones and pagers as well. Qualcomm's pdQ smartphone (pricing not yet available; ), due out this month, offers users the ability to wirelessly send e-mail and access information on the Internet directly from the unit. (For more information, see "Bytes," April.) Wireless paging services also include Internet access much like you get with a Web browser, except without the graphics. For instance, WolfeTech's PocketGenie services (pricing varies; http://www.wolfetech.com), available for select two-way pagers, gather financial, news, weather and additional content directly from the Internet; just specify what information you want via a query entered into the pager, and it brings it back to you.
Of course, information appliances will fail to impress anyone if the key component--the information--isn't useful or readily available. In the coming months, Internet content providers like Yahoo! and others will focus on developing and formatting content for easy delivery to these devices. In addition to stock quotes and news feeds, much of the content services will focus on new ways to gather information personalized to your liking.
"Content providers will get into the game in a big way," Nordan predicts. "You can expect to see more personalized services, like contact management lists that don't just reside on [devices] but on Web portals. They'll be working on [delivering] nibbles of very personalized data to information appliances."
The partnership between Sun Microsystems, AOL and Netscape is also likely to impact the information appliances market. A new breed of Internet devices based on Sun's Java operating system and Netscape's interface that deliver AOL content and Internet access is expected to emerge as well. According to Nordan, "The whole purpose [of this strategy] is to make AOL stickier," meaning Web users will want to return to the site more often. "This could all be provided over the Web and delivered to any device you choose," he says.
In the near future, there will be more ways than ever to get the business and personalized data you need to stay informed, make key decisions and effectively run your business. Soon the key issue won't be what new, complicated technology you use. Rather, it'll be finding the devices that simply do what you want and fit easily into your lifestyle. "It'll be more like buying shoes or a jacket," Nordan says. "The main question you'll ask is, does it fit you?"
Forrester Research, (617) 497-7090, http://www.forrester.com