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High-Tech Times Article 018

Internet Appliances

After 30 years in the computer and technology industries, it’s hard to surprise me. But I can be sneaked up on, and that’s what happened to me a few weeks ago when I abruptly came to the realization that not only has the Internet connected all of us, but it’s also connected everything!


My realization started when I was researching the reasons that Intel has added an electronically-readable serial number to every Pentium III chip. In case you missed it, the CPU ID is a Web-accessible random (but unique) number that Intel is embedding in all future chips. Their reasoning is that with increased electronic commerce, it would be a lot easier to have a buyer’s Web browser transmit the CPU ID number to confirm where an online order was coming from.


What Intel didn’t realize is that privacy gurus would loudly howl that they didn’t want their computer broadcasting its presence wherever they went on the Web, and threatened a boycott. Somewhat disgustedly, Intel promised to turn off the CPU ID feature by default. But that got me thinking about privacy and the Internet in general. Privacy on the Web? “You have none. Get over it.” is the phraseology used by Scott McNealy, Sun Computer’s CEO.


I agree.  If you have a network interface card in your computer, for example, it’s not a difficult task to locate the unique hardware-level MAC address that’s permanently burned into each NIC (that’s the ID that your network uses to decide where to send data packets). Web servers also log each user’s IP address, and most users accept “cookies” specifically designed to identify them in the future. All of which is beside the point.


If you consider the Internet as a conduit for any and all information, you’re getting closer to what I’m seeing. Since around 1984, people have been connecting unusual devices to the Net, including cameras, Coke machines, door bells, ceiling fans, & even a hot tub. Don’t take my word for it; browse over to and take a look. Even my digital pager is accessible via the Web.


On my company’s network, we have a neat, and inexpensive, device called an Intel NetPort Express 10/100 that lets us connect two parallel-port printers and one serial device directly to the network. It uses a Web browser to control the NetPort and the attached devices, and I can access those printers remotely from anywhere in the world. Can it be long before we can access all of our everyday devices the same way?


As I got more interested in this concept, I researched (using the Web, of course) who first came up with the idea. Not surprisingly, I found that Vinton Cerf, often referred to as the “father of the Internet,” had given a speech back on March 4, 1997 to the Association for Computing Machinery, the 50th anniversary of the group. He tried to envision the next 50 years of computing, and came up with some evolutionary ideas.


Dr. Cerf spoke about the future of the Internet, focusing on its applications for being built into our homes, our appliances, and even our bodies. He said to imagine that everything is connected to the Net, all the time. Every kitchen appliance, every car, every telephone, every smart card, every pacemaker, every light bulb. With that infrastructure, every light fixture would have its own IP address, all accessible - and communicating - via the Web.


The term “Internet appliance” has been coined to describe Web browsers that are embedded in devices that can access the Net. Maybe today you’ll use the Web to check your freezer’s temperature while you’re on vacation in Thailand, but tomorrow that link may be two-way, and your refrigerator will converse with your freezer and let you know that you’re out of your favorite beer and pizza. And the day after that, they may place the order online for you using e-mail. Take a look at for an intriguing list of Internet-accessible machines.


A light fixture could send a trigger to your home-maintenance system to let it know that the filament was burned out, and the security system could ask another nearby light to turn itself on instead. Sensors on (or in) your body could let the house know where you are, so lights could turn themselves on to the appropriate brightness level. If you doze off, lights dim automatically, your phone’s ringer shuts off, and the oven lowers the temperature on your turkey.


If you wear a pacemaker, your doctor’s office could monitor it, along with your overall health. When you enter a building, its systems could detect the pacemaker, query a medical server to determine if any devices might cause you risk, and warn you about their presence. Finding the nearest Pepsi machine - with at least one can - would be simple, and you could pay for the drink with a smart-card; no more cash or credit cards. And if you happen to take the next-to-last can of Pepsi, the machine would alert the JIT (just-in-time) delivery vehicle.


If all this seems far-fetched, browse over to Sun and take a look at their Jini interface. Jini connects devices to the network independently of any PC or server (my Intel NetPort device does require a server to be running), and the software that provides an interface to the computers also resides on the network. A Jini device is accessible by any other device, from anywhere and any computer. Sun also intends Jini to “federate” devices so that they work together as a system; Jini runs in each device and emits a “tone” that is automatically picked up and registered by the network as an available device.


When AOL bought Netscape in a deal that involved Sun, AOL expressed interest in using Java technology “to develop selected next-generation Internet devices that will help Internet users access America Online’s brands from anywhere, anytime.” Jini might be just the tool to grant AOL’s wish to have access as easy as a telephone. Phones are ubiquitous: you find them everywhere, in your hotel room, a gas station, or your night stand. Phones are both easy and standardized: you connect one cable, and there’s no installation software. If you use a cellular phone, even the cable disappears. Build it simple, and even more people will use it.


And many of the initial generation of Internet appliances are already here. Samsung has delivered its Web Video Phone II, which is designed to provide Web access, e-mail, and IP telephony, as well as standard voice communications ( Based on PersonalJava applets, the Web Video Phone can connect to a standard telephone circuit, an Ethernet network, or both. Another interesting Web Video Phone feature is called Web Touch & Talk: when users connect to an appropriately-designed Web page, they can read information and simultaneously contact a person with a PC simply by pressing an icon. Think about that for e-commerce and customer service.


Nokia introduced its 9000 Communicator last year; a cross between a palmtop and a cellular phone offering Web access and e-mail ( Qualcomm, the makers of the popular Eudora e-mail client, is offering its pdQ Smart Phone. The pdQ combines state-of-the-art Code-Division Multiple Access (CDMA) wireless communications with 3Com’s Palm computing platform to yield a high-end digital cellular telephone and Web-enabled computer in one device ( And with the Sharp Color Digital Camera Card for their Mobilon CE-based computer, users can instantly take a color picture and send it anywhere via e-mail (


As a Web user, you can enable Internet access from anywhere using just about anything. Hardware, software, and connection infrastructure are advancing at breakneck speeds, trying to keep up with end-user expectations. So get used to the phrase “Internet appliance” - you’ll be seeing a lot of them real soon.


See you next month.