Originally Published: Tuesday, 14 November 2000 Author: Brian Richardson
Published to: enhance_articles_hardware/Hardware Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Bye Bye, iOpener

It's so sad to see you go, iOpener! As thousands of these cool little boxes sit in a warehouse awaiting an uncertain fate, Brian Richardson takes a look at the sad events that left so many of these appliance computers homeless.

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It's always sad to see a tech company fail. In many instances, hard work and dedication are wiped out by bad marketing decisions and silly product placement. That discouraging story has apparently been repeated. Netpliance is no longer making the iOpener. There's a feeling that this failure may spell doom for the appliance computer market, which AOL is about to enter into with their Linux-based appliance.

When We Last Left Our Heroes ...

A few months ago, the $99 iOpener was deemed one of the first "inexpensive Internet appliances", a cool mini-PC with a LCD display. The company assumed you would use their proprietary Internet service (which would be their profit making device). Instead, various hardware hackers snatched up the box and converted it into a Linux plaything.

Netpliance, manufacturer of the iOpener, announced a "major shift in their business model" on Friday. For those of you not familiar with business lingo, a "major shift in their business model," as defined by Netpliance, is equivalent to "We lost our shirts and are cutting 38% of our work force". This comes after Netpliance increased the cost of their system to help offset losses. Sales essentially died, greatly accelerating the company's steep dive into the abyss.

The iOpener will still live on ... sort of. AT&T has partnered with Netpliance to make a variation of the device, bundled with AT&T Internet access and to be sold (are you sitting down?) on QVC. Since AT&T will make the "appliances," orders with Netpliance's Taiwanese manufacturer were canceled.

But I Want My Tiny Linux Box!

The original iOpener flew off the shelves like Jolt Cola at a Linux showcase food vendor ... but not for the service Netpliance was hoping to sell. Hackers wanted the nifty hardware, not the proprietary Internet service. At $99, the box was an attractive platform for hacking. At the "new price" of $400, the box was an under-powered computer with a cute screen (why pay $400 for a lame computer with a proprietary ISP when you can get a "real PC" with a lame proprietary 3-year ISP contract for the same money?).

Netpliance proved there was a demand for their product, but in a different arena. A segment of the population wants a small, appliance-style computer. But they don't necessarily want "somebody else's system" stuck in a tamper-proof box. There's a nice arena for Linux appliance/embedded systems to fill this gap.

If you're at Comdex, the geek equivalent of a professional wrestling event, look for the AOL booth. Behind the 8 foot stacks of free discs, you'll see their "counter top appliance" It's a black box with a touch-screen display. This Linux-based device, equipped for modem and broadband access, is AOL's foray into the Internet appliance world. The hardware looks pretty solid, including a touch-screen interface for folks used to ATM interfaces. While it's Linux-based, it's far from open (of course, it's pre-loaded with an AOL for the Linux client). And at a retail price of $599, it's very close to the cost of an entry level computer ("Hm", the buyer says, "should I buy this easy to use black box or the big beige thing with the rats-nest of wires growing out of the back").

AOL's Touch Pad Internet Appliance will help define a turning point in consumer computer hardware. Will consumers favor the PC (harder to use, but very expandable) or the appliance computer (not as expandable, but very simple to operate)? If this market segment grows, Linux users may find their favorite desktop operating system running on their parent's information appliance.

Brian Richardson has considered the possibility that home computers may become so common, they appear in every room of the house. He hopes they never make it to the bathroom, because every time you use the keyboard, you have to wonder if the last person washed their hands.

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