W e b w o r d

Vol. 2, No. 2: MARCH-APRIL 1998



Charles Petrie

Stanford Center for Design Research


Perhaps Java was a mistake.


The virtual operating system was a great idea, but perhaps all the fuss has distracted us from what's really important. Java applets that run on standardized browsers across platforms is a great idea for those of us who need and want to pull lots of different applications off the Web. A cheap NC that does the same might also be a fine idea.

But both still assume operating systems that are far more complex than what many people need.


If you're caught up in worrying about the next great OS, you're missing the boat.

Look, there are only two classes of users that count: small computer users and large businesses. (Those of us on Unix workstations using emacs are smugly floating in the original lake of free cutting-edge software while the river of PC development slowly empties it.) Businesses want servers. And what matters to them are the server wars (see the Intranets column). This issue of Internet Computing focuses on what makes a good server architecture.

But, as someone else used to say, what about the rest of us?

How am I going to get my mother on e-mail? There's no way she's going to install and maintain Eudora, much less Windows. She doesn't need a full-blown computer. Nor does she need a general OS—one that can load any program and provides a general-purpose file structure. She only needs an e-mail appliance.


I never understood why PCs caught on in the first place. Back when the Apple II first came out, I couldn't imagine anyone wanting to fool with maintaining such a system, much less being able to get all the application software. I'm still puzzled. People have put up with really awful systems. And though Apple had the right idea, they hardly eliminated installation problems and frequent crashes. Little computers are just a pain in the neck.

Look at the now-defunct Newton. This was a fairly low maintenance machine. But check out the description on its Web site. Even the eMate came with lots of software alternatives, including a TCP/IP stack—but no modem. Nope, the Newton won't do for Mom.

Check out Ted Lewis's article, "Information Appliances: Gadget Netopia" in the January 1998 issue of Computer. Some gadgets run on a scaled-down version of Windows CE. But it's still a general OS. Besides, it hasn't been particularly successful. This is one reason the Navitel TouchPhone, though moving in the right direction, isn't quite it. It's really still a Windows box running Internet Explorer. Not the cheap, dedicated, pick-up-to-use appliance Mom needs.

The PalmPilot is an excellent product and almost mandatory if you live in Silicon Valley. (You've read the stories of concert-goers here raising their backlit Pilots instead of candles.) But it's less an appliance than a PC accessory. Why can't we have something simpler?


Part of the answer is the large segment of the population that likes gadgets and wants complete control of their information and applications. Another part of the answer is that because of the constant flux in software, up till now you've had to get your hands dirty if you wanted to grub out a few spreadsheets.

Except for a set of core applications, the Internet eliminates that. All my mother needs is an e-mail appliance that attaches to her phone, a cable line, or a small dish outside, and works much like the phone, except instead of talking, she types. New software gets installed automatically via the Net. Same with diagnostics. If the hardware fails, she brings it to someone who can fix it. Otherwise, the system just works.


OK, there's WebTV. You get the Web and e-mail on your TV. Software is downloaded automatically. Still, it's more expensive and has more features than Mom wants. (Just check out the long list of features on the WebTV site.) Moreover, if you have to use an independent ISP because WebTV service is not offered in your area, it's another $10 a month. Microsoft (yes, WebTV, too, is owned by Microsoft) has built elaborate software and hardware for Web services, including secure electronic commerce, into its product.

Although it is a great idea and a hot product, consumers like Mom don't need anything that complicated. E-mail doesn't require a very fast modem. Yes, were she a Sega player, she'd be set for only $100 and no monthly service charge. As if.

Mom's waiting for the second-generation WebPhones Ted predicts. But cheaper—less than $300. They replace your phone and don't need a general-purpose OS. They don't use applets either, or require maintenance.

Are you listening Baby Bells? T-Online? Minitel? Please build an electric typewriter that will send e-mail for my mother. There's a big market for less complexity waiting for you.

URLs in this article

"Intranets: Your New Standard" cdr.stanford.edu/~petrie/online/v1i5-webword.html

"Information Appliances: Gadget Netopia" computer.org/computer/co1998/r1059abs.htm

Navitel TouchPhone www.navitel.com/

Newton www.panix.com/~clay/newton/

PalmPilot palmpilot.3com.com/

Sega www.sega.com/cgi-bin/store/browse.pl/netlink.html

WebTV www.webTV.net/ns/

WebTV features www.webTV.net/ns/corporate/features/

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