Bell speeds up

The future of computers is here and it looks…an awful lot like your television service actually. At least, according to the vision of Bell Nexxia and IBM Canada.

The national telecommunications service provider is planning to trial a new IBM appliance this summer, one that will be directly connected to the Internet via Bell Nexxia’s high-speed “always on” DSL lines. With no internal hard drive, the appliance’s Web-based applications will be provided as per customer demand by a select group of application service providers (ASPs), similar to the way cable television or Bell ExpressVu subscribers pick and choose the channels they want to pay for and watch.

“It could be, for example, the suite of services the ASP wants to offer a particular customer includes the ability to look at spreadsheets, presentations, games or whatever,” explained Brian Mahoney, an alliance executive with IBM Canada. “Then those applications could be packaged in with the overall service.”

IBM and Bell Nexxia are currently looking at providing the appliance, machine maintenance, connectivity and applications at a monthly cost to the customer, or possibly on a lease basis. No firm details have been worked out, including who the ASPs will be.

For the initial pilot project, Bell Nexxia will be testing 10 of the machines from June to September at enterprise customers in some of Canada’s larger urban areas. But representatives of the two companies admitted the future of the small 10-inch screen appliance might well be in the home.

“I think part of the niche (market) is addressing that part of the community that is less comfortable in adopting technology, and technology for the Internet,” explained John MacDonald, Bell Nexxia’s vice-president of national accounts.

IBM’s Mahoney added: “This is one step to that ubiquitous, pervasive, or that natural computing as they’re now talking about, where computers are going to be integrated into everything. It’s going to be completely irrelevant to us where the data is coming from, how it’s coming, or how we access it. We’ll be able to just walk in and tell the TV to turn itself on, and that’ll be our access to the Internet — or whatever we’re using down the road.”

Fidelity Investments, IBM’s partner in the United States for a spring trial of the Internet appliance, is already eyeing the bedrooms and dens of America as the prime target for the thin-line product.

“My parents are somebody who had never been on the Internet until January of this year, after Christmas when we bought them a computer,” related Jim Griffin, a Fidelity representative in Boston. “Pretty much the only thing they use the computer for, which is a nice computer and it does a lot of things, is the Internet and e-mail. My parents are not interested in doing an Excel spreadsheet, or Word document, or PowerPoint presentation. With them, for example, the Internet appliance might be a neat little feature, where a computer would be overkill.”

Analyst George Karidis of The Yankee Group in Brockville, Ont., remained skeptical of the home applications for IBM’s appliance.

“I see the Nexxia link, which will give you high-speed always-on access — fair enough — but what does the low-end Internet appliance really deliver?” he wondered. “What is the price-point difference going to be to justify buying that rather than a regular PC, which you can at least use in downtime to do other things with?”

Mahoney said the appliances will be priced moderately — “absolutely under $1,000” — when they are fully rolled out in September. He added businesses have the ability to realize savings by replacing a regular in-house LAN server (connecting desktop computers) with an ASP provider and Internet appliances.

“(With) the device not having all of the internal aspects of the desktops today, you’re going to be reducing your end-user service costs dramatically,” he said.

Jordan Worth, an analyst with IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto, said there are opportunities to use IBM’s appliances for business, but the deployment may be limited to customer ordering.

“Let’s say you’re a company and you sell auto parts, and you want your top five customers to have immediate access to your inventory, and be able to place orders directly,” Worth suggested. “You would theoretically drop one of these appliances into your customers’ offices, hook them up at high speed, and they would zoom around your Web site, check out the parts you have, check out your availability, pricing, and if necessary, order on-line.

“And it’s actually a physical presence reminding (the customer) that they do business with this company, and they’re important.”

Worth said the obvious drawback of the appliance is its cost, especially as most offices today are already outfitted with desktop computers.