June 1, 1996

Latest Internet product destined to rot in boxes

GEEK NEWS

You’ve probably heard a little about a new Internet toy we’ll be seeing soon, the $500 Internet Box. This machine is supposed to bring the Internet to

the masses.

Why spend $2,500 to connect to the Internet, when you can do so for $500? Bring down the price of the hardware required to connect, and the

masses will rush into cyberspace in a flood that would frighten Noah.

There’s nothing magic about the $500 box. Nobody’s discovered a way to produce great systems at a low cost – these companies are working in the

same world as everyone else. So how do they plan to do it? Well, you get what you pay for, and if you’re paying only $500, you don’t get much.

Look at the price of a computer. You’ll find that a fully loaded near-top-of-the-line computer currently costs from $3,000 to $4,000. And you know,

it’s always cost that much, for 10 years or more. Prices don’t go down, power goes up. Why? Because that’s what people want.

When was the last time you heard some computer geek lusting over a 286? You can get 286s very cheaply, but nobody wants them. You can buy XTs

for next to nothing, because to most people, that’s just what they are worth (I bought one recently for $25). We want to get better computers, and

we’re prepared to pay for it.

“Yes,” some Internet-Box proponents will say, “but you are missing the point. Computer geeks aren’t going to buy these machines.” They certainly

aren’t. Who, then, is?

Eighty-year-old grandmothers, I was told by the author of a book about Internet Boxes. They want to keep in touch with their family, and half the

family’s on the Internet (actually they’re not, but that’s the hype), so grandmother will keep in touch through e-mail.

These boxes are designed for people who are not computer users. But why aren’t they computer users? In many cases because they’re not interested.

The masses, in general, don’t actually want the Internet. As a friend put it recently, “I went on an Internet training course, and it was very interesting

… I know how to use it now. I don’t really want to, though.”

Part of the problem is that people are starting to believe their own hype. The Internet is nowhere near as “compelling” as we’ve been told. It’s certainly

years from being able to compete with television, if it ever will. People like to sit in front of a TV and watch a game, movie, sitcom or whatever. The

Internet is a very different animal, an “entertainment” that is active, not passive.

With TV, just press a button to get the channel you want. With the Internet, spend hours searching for what you want … and you still may not find it.

Then spend time reading, waiting for stuff to transfer, writing messages. This is simply not entertainment to most Americans, and probably never will

be.

That’s not to say the Internet’s not useful. The Internet can be very useful, very interesting, and occasionally even entertaining. But most people

simply don’t need it, and have other things to do with their time already. Will they run out and spend $500 on an Internet Box? Or will they spend it

on a new TV, a vacation, or a stereo?

The people who are interested in using the Internet are the same people interested in everything else a computer can do for them. They want a

computer that the kids can use for school projects, they want to be able to use a CD encyclopedia, and play games, they want to connect to America

OnLine and CompuServe, to do their household accounts. All things that you won’t be able to do on one of these stupid Internet Boxes.

Of course, now we come to the absurd contention that if you don’t need a powerful computer, the Internet can be your computer. Want to write a

letter? Use a word processor on the Internet. You’ll be able to rent a Java “app” for the time you need to use it. Want to use a graphics program?

Again, rent it over the Internet. Whatever you need, you’ll rent. And when you’re ready to save a file, you’ll save it on a hard disk at your service

provider – you’ll rent space. (Of course, what starts out as a $500 box quickly gets more expensive when you realize you are paying for its

weaknesses with monthly checks to your service provider.)

For a system like this to work, there are a few things you need.

First, you need “rentable” applications, and right now there aren’t any. In fact, most of the Java apps on the Internet are rubbish, little more than

programmer’s demos of what can be done. Another thing you’ll need is a reliable connection to the Internet, a connection as reliable as the power

coming into your house. I’ve used a couple of dozen Internet service providers – right now I have accounts with six or seven of them, maybe more –

and I haven’t found one that I can rely on.

They’re often difficult to connect to, they often drop connections. We’re years from reliable Internet connections at a reasonable cost.

Next, we need fast connections. We have to have connections at least as fast as ISDN (which is next to impossible to get in Colorado and much of the

rest of North America), and even that’s not really enough. Cable connections would be better, but I’ll bet you won’t see them in widespread use for at

least four or five years. Better still would be the ADSL connections from the phone company, which may turn up at the end of the year. But again, it

will be at least two or three years before they are widely available.

But even if we have these three components, do you really want to save your data on someone else’s computer? What happens when they go out of

business, or when, through the incompetence that seems so common in Internet service-provider staff, they accidentally erase your critical

information?

In any case, you’ll still find that you need more than $500 worth of equipment to do any real work. The RAM alone in the new computer I’m buying

costs around $800. When it comes to computing, people want more, not less. And they’re willing to pay more, too.

Does all this mean Internet Boxes will be a complete commercial failure? No.

Will they sell many of these machines? Yes. In fact, it seems likely that this Christmas thousands will find their way into American homes. Where

most will sit and slowly rot.

Peter Kent is the co-author of “The Official Netscape JavaScript Book,” due out soon from Netscape Press. He can be contacted at

pkent@lab-press.com.

GEEK NEWS

You’ve probably heard a little about a new Internet toy we’ll be seeing soon, the $500 Internet Box. This machine is supposed to bring the Internet to

the masses.

Why spend $2,500 to connect to the Internet, when you can do so for $500? Bring down the price of the hardware required to connect, and the

masses will rush into cyberspace in a flood that would frighten Noah.

There’s nothing magic about the $500 box. Nobody’s discovered a way to produce great systems at a low cost – these companies are working in the

same world as everyone else. So how do…

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