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by Wes George



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The Sorcerer's Apprentice, or Why You Don't Want an Info Appliance Made by a PC Company
November 22nd, 1999 

Our goal wasn't just to differentiate our product, but to create products that people would love in the future.

                  Jonathan Ive, VP for industrial design at Apple

As usual, Apple avoided an official appearance at Comdex this year, probably because the egos in Cupertino are in denial about Apple’s bit part in the PC drama. Or, maybe, Apple feels like it would be better not to flaunt their latest R&D innovations to a hungry pack of clueless PC Borgs whom—18 months behind the curve—are now scarfing down on the iMac’s inspiration.

Either way it doesn’t look like Apple missed much at Comdex, other than the PC version of a Jetson’s episode.

First, let’s get my own vision for the future on the table, (largely borrowed from Ray Kurzweil) so I can’t be accused of Ludditism. I believe the Internet is the greatest single techno-cultural bifurcation since fire. Furthermore, machine intelligence will some day pass the Turing test and petition for emancipation. In fact, most humans will be wed physically with machines in some way by the middle of next century. As a civilization we are well on our way to becoming, in philosopher Teilhard de Chardin’s phrase, "beings of light".

That said, the PC information appliance banter coming out of Comdex is a caricature of silly 1950s style future mania. You remember--atomic automobiles and tomatoes as big as a house. Likewise, the imminent death of the PC hype from such respected luminaries as Walter Mossberg is, well, greatly exaggerated.

Network Computers, 1984 Revisited

Scott McNealy, that fashion hound CEO of Sun Microsystems, exclaimed at Comdex, "Workstations are so last year". Yet, his solution, "thin client" network terminals with no hard drives, were unsuccessfully proposed by Oracle in 1996. Mr. McNealy is no disinterested observer, most of Sun’s income is derived from high-end server sales which would benefit the most from widespread network terminal adoption.

Oracle is ready to give Sun a run for the money with their own version of a network PC. This time around corporate elites may be ready to reign in the freedom employees have with their customized PCs and head back to the centrally controlled terminal days of the 1970s. It’s a reverse of the "power to the people" movement which energized Apple in the early days.

Thin clients mean no games, no chat, no warez, no wasting company time and no privacy, things every productivity-crazed board of directors can appreciate. It remains to be seen if companies can keep the microserfs down in their cubicles after their private hard drives—their last source of individuality--have been replaced with brainless monitors. If Sun and Oracle have their way gulags of cubicles could become dull prisons for millions of workers subservient to an elite SS corps of network administrators from the server bunker. And this just when things were looking so good for the 21st century.

Mickey Mouse

What the hype about "information appliances" is really about is the ability to make just about anything more useful and productive simply by networking it, most often with an IP address, to the appropriate resources for service or data. It’s about the inevitable invasion of the Internet into every aspect of human affairs for better or worse.

Besides bringing his Orwellian vision to a desktop near you, Mr. McNealy imagines our online future includes light bulbs with embedded microprocessors that would log on and order new bulbs when they burn out, and cell phones that can wire fifty cents to Atlanta from your account for a coke dropped out of a vending machine.

PCs are not in the least threatened by this trend. Just as hi-fidelity home stereo sales weren’t effected by the transistor radio boomlet in the 1960’s, your desktop will be around at least until miniaturization can pack a gigahertz punch into a "wearable".

The best part of the info appliance banter in 1999 seems to be posturing. After a year of watching Internet IPOs soar regardless of gravity, everybody wants on the Internet bandwagon, even those without a clue. Information appliances seem like a great way for a ‘meatworld’—to use William Gibson’s term-- company to get in on some dot com virtual action.

Hewlett Packard missed the first wave on the Internet, but now they have a new CEO, Carly Fiorina, whose boldly clueless vision for our online future includes a Swatch/HP device that, "automatically identifies the wearer of the watch then notifies him or her that a favorite rock band has released a new album." Now that's revolutionary! Ms. Fiorina wants to make cyberspace a warm and fuzzy place where spam can find you no matter where you hide. Of course, you can also do useful things with your Dick Tracy Swatch like check your e-mail one word at a time or have a pizza delivered to your GPS coordinates.

On closer inspection, HP's main Internet initiative is a new logo and a 200 million-dollar marketing campaign to revitalize HP's old fuddy image. Hey, it worked for IBM. Remember when Lou Gerstner’s hyperbola had Wall Street convinced that old blue was as nimbly fresh faced as an Internet start-up?

At Comdex, Mickey Mouse hype-sters envision that your dishwasher will be wirelessly networked to your digital video camera and you'll be able to turn up the volume on your home stereo from the table saw in the garage. I have no doubt that such Fantasia will eventually come to pass towards the end of the next decade. But the hype coming out of Comdex is just a bit premature in an age where the world’s most widely used OS is still based on the arcane alchemistry of DOS.

To start with, the level of reliability online or in your PC is still far below the regular industrial age appliances we have come to depend on. Imagine flipping on the TV to watch the X-Files only to find out that Fox was off line for an upgrade. Your car, your refrigerator, your stereo and phone all work flawlessly for months even years in a spell without the need for rebooting. As well they must. If your car "crashed" on the highway, lives would be in peril. If your refrigerator temperature preferences were corrupted, your health could be threatened.

The second issue that will hold up information appliances for awhile is the lack of high-speed broadband networks. In fact, weak Internet connections are holding up a whole host of IP applications from video conferencing for the masses to the downloading of MP3s. The actual physical implementation of an ubiquitous robust, fiber/satellite based, broadband infrastructure will take at least a few years to build. Meanwhile most info appliances will be for those patient few who like to bleed on the edge or have special business needs.

A third issue which will slow the adoption of IP based appliances will be security, privacy and the hacker/virus threat. Eventually, in the broadband house of the future imagined at Comdex every room and every piece of furniture will be exposed to a level of invasive new dangers barely conceivable today. Imagine the horror stories possible -- someone who steals your "smart" bicycle could hack into dad’s pacemaker. The litigation exposure alone will slow any rapid adoption of wholesale cyber-networking.

The fourth and perhaps most important issue which will delay widespread adoption of information appliances is that none of the major players can agree on a common communication protocol. Just like today’s world where most of us own a dozen incompatible remote controllers, the early info appliance years could well be confounded by a vastly more complex version of the Betamax versus VHS wars.

The vibes for collaboration here are sullied by the bad example of Microsoft's domination of the PC OS market. Sony, Sun, 3com, and Oracle all fear the same type of monopoly could arise in a few years hence in the networking space and each is willing to die before they capitulate to the next guy’s standardization. Secretly each aspires to be the next Microsoft.

This is a Job for...

But there won’t be a next Microsoft to unify the chaos of the Internet, thank God. Moreover, why would anyone trust the same band of buffoons that have tolerated the blue screen of death for a decade to bring us reliable and safe smart appliances. The best companies for the job should have a philosophy and a history of successfully of integrating complex technologies with intuitive human usefulness. They should have a strong brand name instantly recognizable to consumers as a symbol of high value, reliability, innovation and, dare I say it, coolness.

Maybe that’s why ABN AMRO analyst Jonathan Ross initiated coverage on Apple with an outperform rating right in the middle of Comdex with these fighting words, ``We believe no PC maker is better positioned with consumers to take advantage of large opportunities in the emerging device and home networking markets."

Your comments are welcomed.

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Wes George writes about the financial side of being a Mac nut. Wes has followed Apple's finances for the last 7 years and comes to The Mac Observer every Monday to tell all about his opinions. He is, in his own words, "inordinately fond of money." If you would like to write Wes, make it nice. Someday you might own a company that has something to do with Apple, and Wes will probably still be writing for The Mac Observer...... On the other hand, Mr. George is known to love a rousing, hair-raising debate, so send him your worst!

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