Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Should You Buy an Internet Appliance? (Personal Computing)

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Should You Buy an Internet Appliance? (Personal Computing)

Article excerpt

Let's say you're not yet online and want to get there but don't want to mess with a complicated computer. Or let's say your parents or grandparents fit this description. What should you do?

This question has spawned an entire category of simple Internet access devices called Internet appliances. Yet these devices have failed miserably in the marketplace. Exploring why sheds light on the challenge of getting a senior citizen online and, if you're a senior citizen, what your options are today.

Clearly there's a potential market out there. The latest data from market research firm Dataquest shows that 39 percent of U.S. households still aren't online. A whopping 85 percent of U.S. senior citizens don't yet have Internet access, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Yet within the past year, three major manufacturers of Internet appliances have dropped out of the market: Sony, 3Com and Netpliance.

The sole surviving stand-alone Internet appliance actively marketed to consumers is Compaq's iPAQ Home Internet Appliance, which I and my 74-year-old father tested in detail and which, despite great potential, has problems of its own.

Compaq sells two versions that are both attractively priced. The smaller and more portable IA-1 has a flat-panel screen and retails for $399, and the bulkier IA-2 has a conventional computer monitor and retails for $299. Prices at consumer electronics stores, where they are typically sold, are sometimes even less.

Both units operate similarly. They look and act like PCs but lack a hard drive, which is appropriate since Internet appliances aren't meant for storing letters, budgets, and so on. Without a hard drive, there's no waiting for the device to "boot up" when you turn it on.

Compaq's Home Internet Appliance is designed for surfing the Web, sending and receiving e-mail, and engaging in instant messaging. It's easy to set up and use.

The biggest negative is that it's inextricably bundled with MSN Companion, Microsoft's operating system for Internet appliances. MSN Companion is tied closely to MSN Internet Access, and like the MSN Internet service provider (ISP), it's slow and buggy. Consumer Reports recently ranked MSN last among eight national ISPs for speed, interruptions and availability.

You don't have to use MSN to connect to the Internet with Compaq's Home Internet Appliance. But as just one more example of Microsoft's monopolistic mindset, because of Compaq's licensing agreement with Microsoft, if you use another ISP, you still have to pay Microsoft $9. …

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