It's no secret the Internet is the hottest computer industry development around. But what's the biggest trend in this arena right now? The range of new technology that's springing up to make Internet access cheaper and easier than ever before.
At press time, major manufacturers, including IBM and Sun Microsystems, were working on their long-awaited "Internet PCs"-PCs without disk drives or monitors that are used with TV sets solely to access the Internet. These machines, expected to sell for about $500, should be on the market by the time you read this.
But they are not your only option; several other choices are already available, including inexpensive, scaled-down computers and set-top boxes that work with televisions and phone lines. You don't need to be tech-savvy-or have a lot of money-to purchase and use these products, which are opening the Internet to a wider range of users.
Some of these products are on the market today, and many more vendors have announced they'll be coming out with similar products in the coming year. Here's a look at some of the latest.
On The Network
Many small companies need PCs for standard office applications and also need to access the Internet. Network computers, a new category of hardware, allow you to accomplish both tasks for less money than ever before-well under $1,000 per user.
Network computers differ from standard PCs in that they act as terminals to PC servers. All your applications, including Windows and Internet access, run on the server, which you connect to using the inexpensive network computer, which simply acts as a display.
In a way, this computing style is a throwback to the earlier days of computing, when a series of terminals ran off a mainframe computer. Dubbed "thin client" computing in computer industry jargon, this method is highly cost-effective for smaller businesses that may want to provide computers and Internet access to several users without spending a lot of money.
Network computers are also a money-saver if your company has telecommuters or employees, such as salespeople, who frequently work outside the office. In the past, to access computer data, such "remote workers" had to dial directly into the office's computer server over long-distance phone lines. With network computers, however, they can simply access the office by making a local phone call to an Internet service provider (ISP) and connecting to the server.
Network computers also require less daily service and support than traditional PCs. They have no hard drives and are much simpler to install. As a result, the cost of ownership is significantly lower than that of a traditional PC.
The disadvantages? Network computer systems won't provide the speed and power of a standard desktop PC. Individual users can't plug CD-ROM drives and other add-ons into their systems. And if the server goes down, the whole network goes down. Still, many small com-panies do very well with the capabilities these network computers offer.
One of the first companies to introduce network computers was Wyse Technology Inc. Its Wyse Winterm product line provides Internet access and Windows computing for prices ranging from $500 to $750 per unit. The line includes the Winterm Model 2300, 2000T, 2500T and 2700T. The "T" models come integrated with a 14- or 15-inch display monitor; the 2300 comes with a choice of monitors. Separately available software, WyseWork, which runs on a server, allows users to access Unix and mainframe applications (the starting price is $495 for five users).
HDS@workStation from HDS Network Systems is similar to the Winterm family of products, providing Internet access and Windows computing. However, this $699 network computer also comes standard with the ability to run Java applets and PC, Unix and mainframe applications, so if you currently use one of these programs, you don't have to purchase a new application to use the network system. And because the HDS@workStation supports a full suite of multimedia options (for an additional $600), you can use it to develop Web sites or perform Internet-based communications such as videoconferencing.
Although not a network computer, AST's new Bravo MS-T Pentium Pro-based product line might be just the thing you need if you're in the market for a new computer that also offers easy Internet access. These standard desktop systems, available for $2,300 to $3,715, come bundled with AST-IntraAccess software, a package that includes everything you need for Web browsing, Web site development, and data sharing via a company Intranet.
Plug It In
Computer companies are developing a new generation of "convergence" products that give you access to the Internet using standard phone lines and, in some cases, a TV set but don't require the use of a PC. So far, these devices are limited to simple Internet access and home entertainment. But while you wouldn't want to use them as your primary Internet connection, they can be useful if you're on the road or at home and need to access the Internet. Here are some of your options:
Â·The iBOX by JCC Corp., priced at $500, is a compact device that plugs into a phone line and TV set to bring the Internet into your home or office without the need for a PC. (You do, however, need an account with an ISP.)
The iBOX has a handheld control pad with buttons and a trackball-like pointing device. Using the device, you select options from an on-screen menu to access any site on the Web as well as send and receive e-mail. You'll need an optional keyboard to input your e-mail messages, although you can retrieve e-mail without it. Inside the iBOX is a CD-ROM drive; a CD-ROM disk holds all the software you need for e-mail and Web access. This product is available only through JCC.
- The NetPAD from Momentum Inc. is a portable terminal about the size of a videocassette tape. It has a keyboard and an eight-line display screen. Just plug it into a standard phone line (you'll need an account with an ISP) to access a full range of electronic services, including Internet e-mail, Web browsing, and online services such as banking and brokerage. The NetPAD, available for $200, uses encryption technology to ensure your transactions are secure and private.
- ViewCall America is a service that will enable you to access the Web or send e-mail through a standard TV and phone connection. Subscribers to the service, scheduled to be available by year-end, will receive a small box that plugs into a phone and TV set. A remote control with buttons corresponding to buttons on the ViewCall service screen leads you to the desired services. An optional infrared, wireless keyboard, available for $50 to $75, can be used to prepare and send e-mail. As of press time, prices for this service had not been set but were expected to be comparable to other online services.
- Compaq Computer Corp. and Thomson Consumer Electronics have announced an alliance to develop a broad line of convergence products. While no products have been announced so far, the companies expect to start rolling out products in the first half of 1997.
Whether you're in the office, at home or on the road, more options for accessing the Internet are becoming available every day. With a choice of new products at a variety of price levels, there are fewer excuses not to get on the Web.
AST Computer, 16215 Alton Pkwy., Irvine, CA 92718, (800) 876-4278;
HDS Network Systems Inc., 400 Feheley Dr., King of Prussia, PA 19406, (610) 277-8300;
JCC Corp., 124 University Ave., #103, Palo Alto, CA 94301, (415) 473-1106;
Momentum Inc., 745 Boylston St., Boston, MA 02116, (617) 262-2466;
Thomson Consumer Electronics, 10330 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46290-1024, (800) 336-1900;
ViewCall America, 560 Oakbrook Pkwy., #240, Norcross, GA 30093, (770) 729-2929;
Wyse Technology, 3471 N. First St., San Jose, CA 95134, (800) GET-WYSE.