Posted by: Steven Harris | November 29, 2008

Internet Appliance

Twelve years or so ago Sun Microsystems (and others) began talking about “Internet appliances.” By this they meant small computers with relatively little onboard computing power and software, computers which would rely more on network-based applications. I was not really paying a great deal of attention to technology research and journalism at the time. My knowledge of this concept was based on the most casual reading. So, I haven’t kept track of the discussion in intervening years.

At the time, I couldn’t get my brain around the notion of a computer being anything but a desktop (or at least laptop) device.  Surely, an Internet appliance wasn’t a handheld device or even a phone.  I, frankly, thought the idea was stupid.  Who wants some under-powered thing that relies on networked resources to even operate properly? Well, the answer is actually anybody who has a cellphone.

My new iPhone has me thinking about the idea of Internet appliance. Obviously, since the 1990s a lot of engineers and futurists have been thinking about this idea. Despite my lack of interest, development went on! In the idea of Internet appliance, however, a lot of ideas that I now hold dear are intrinsic:

  • Ubiquitous computing…you don’t have to be tied to a desktop. Some kinds of computing can be done on the run.
  • The web is the platform…the infrastructure is shifted away from the user’s end toward a hosted solution.
  • Data is the real infrastructure…users can access their stuff without having huge amounts of storage space on their device. The data is easily repackaged for delivery to a variety of devices, regardless of size.
  • Rich user experiences…to be able to do interesting things wherever you might be.

While, I initially thought of Internet appliance as a “computer,” really it means exactly the opposite of “computer.”  The word appliance kind of implies that, but another word might be better. Tool is too mundane. Toy is too frivolous.  I’m drawn to “gizmo,” but that might be a bit frivolous too.  Anyway, it’s a good thing these developments didn’t have to rely on my meager imagination.  I’ve given up my doubting ways though.  I look forward to Internet gizmos coming in all shapes and sizes in the future.

Thesaurus: machine, gadget, implement, utensil (love the small precision of that one), apparatus, mechanism

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