For sale: one over-engineered, over-priced, almost-a-computer in mint condition

I like electric can openers. In their primal, mid-1970s form they’re loud, ugly and, sometimes, rusted all to hell, but I like them nonetheless. One of these days I’ll take a walk down Queen Street East – Toronto’s old Leslieville neighbourhood – and pick one up (avocado green, if possible) at one of those carefully packed, tiny stores specializing in retro machinery.

But I’d never use it. I’d love to have one, but only for show. After all, how would I justify the cost of this high-tech version when the device works just as well in its lowly, manual, hand-held form? Electric can openers are only as retro/kitsch cool as they are obsolete.

Computer aficionados probably feel the same way about a different kind of appliance: the Internet appliance. It’s a computer sans floppy slot, expansion ports and CPU tower, designed to do three things: connect to the Internet, collect e-mail, and, um… connect to the Internet.

Not long ago (read:12 months) computer manufacturers were all about Internet appliances. OEMs seemed to think these devices would work well everywhere. They’d keep in the kitchen, live in the living room – perhaps offer a World Wide Web of light reading in the bathroom and light dark hallways with their alien TV-blue glow.

You can never have too many Internet access points, went the argument in favour of these dumbed-down PCs. Besides (it continued) not all of us want – or need – complete computers.

In fact, some people are downright afraid of computers. They don’t know what’s going on behind the screen, and they don’t care for all that jazz about MHz, XML, apps and the magical wizards in OS.

If only we could give these Luddites simple devices for Internet access… They’d be full-fledged Netizens in no time. We could market these “appliances” to people who already have computers, too… Maybe they don’t need a whole second computer, but perhaps they’d be happy with a lesser – but useful – device.

Right. Lately the argument went quiet. In March 3Com Corp. killed off “Audrey,” its own Internet appliance. Last November Netpliance Inc., an Internet-only computer maker, stopped building its “i-opener,” which, like Audrey, did little more than surf.

What happened to that raging optimism for Internet appliances? Price stuck in the argument’s gullet. Internet appliances cost too much, especially during these days of heavily discount priced PCs. Audrey went for approximately $800 by its timely demise. Netpliance’s desktop urchin tipped the scale at a hefty $US399. Both devices would set consumers back a step the way an entry level but fully functional computer would – and even low-grade computers offer reasonably expansive hard drives, disk drives, expansion ports and Web connectivity.

What can you do with an Internet-only computer? Not much. For those of us seeking a viable adjunct device – be it for Web access, spreadsheet programs or word processing – Internet appliances aren’t up to the multitask.

Don’t kick the computer, but the ‘net itself remains a downgrade experience. Programs live on hard drives, not on Web sites. Streaming media? If you’re looking for quality of sound and continuous playback, forget it. Internet connectivity comes and goes according to the whims of obscure technology.

But price and the Web’s immaturity aren’t the only problems Internet appliances face. These over-engineered, under-performing devices display a philosophical disconnection that no amount of discount pricing or infrastructure improvements can overcome.

Suffice it to say that new technology gains a foothold in the market thanks to the buying habits of “early adopters” – those of us willing to purchase “bleeding edge” for the sake of having the newest, neatest devices on the planet.

When it comes to things electronic, early adopters tend to be tech heads. They like gadgets – toys for big kids, right? These big kids like to play with computers. They enjoy exploring the dark space inherent in massive hard drives, adding new peripherals to legacy towers, partitioning, coding, network-making, what have you.

Internet appliances, by these standards, are no fun at all. They just sit displaying a happy, listless grin: www? Woo hoo. So much for the early adopters.

What about the newbies? No luck there. Computer newcomers tend to buy tried and true, not bleeding edge. Internet appliances are not tried and true.

For OEMs still bullish about the prospects of Internet-only computers (including the New Internet Computer Co. and Compaq Computer Corp.), they’re depending on that odd bunch – a tiny group indeed – who have no history of buying bleeding edge but, lucky for certain manufacturers, chose this very moment to take a chance.

Uh huh. Goodbye, critical mass; so long Internet appliances.

Likewise the electric can opener. For some, these countertop beasts (or wall mounted… even better!) make perfect sense. Surely some arthritis sufferers count on electric can openers when their joints simply aren’t up to the manual task, but for the rest of us the plug-‘n-pry version is no more useful – and given the cost, much less so – than its manual sibling.

An entry-level PC is neither cool, new, nor is it likely to wow your user’s group, but it gets the job done. Why buy the not-so-improved version?

In a decade or so I’ll start my search for a well-preserved Internet appliance a la Audrey or i-opener, in avocado green, if possible. I suspect that by then these devices – like the electric can opener – will only be as retro/ kitsch cool as they are obsolete.

Dubowski is a freelance writer and self-described technoslave holed up in Hamilton, Ont. You may reach him by e-mail at [email protected]

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