More than 60 percent of the U.S. population aged 16 years and older are still offline, according to a recent survey by market research firm IntelliQuest, and 44 percent have no intention to go online.
Most analysts point to the cost and complexity of personal computers as the reason. Prices may be falling and ease of use rising, but PCs, Macs and Internet access still cost good money. And unless you're a kid weaned on them, computers aren't child's play.
Seeking to tap into the potentially lucrative market of the computer illiterate, companies are introducing devices designed for connecting to the Internet that are smaller, simpler and cheaper than PCs. Dubbed Internet appliances, these devices can only accelerate the Internet's growth.
I spent the past few weeks testing the one Internet appliance that to me looks best on paper, and I was impressed with its potential. I-opener from Netpliance, Austin, TX, distinguishes itself from TV-based devices such as Microsoft WebTV in that it uses a computer monitor for better viewing of text and Web graphics. It distinguishes itself from personal digital assistants such as 3Com's Palm VII and smart telephones such as Motorola's i1000 plus in that it has a full-size keyboard for speedy text entry. And it distinguishes itself from e-mail devices such as the Cidco MailStation in that you can browse the Web along with exchanging e-mail.
The best thing about the I-opener is its automation. You just plug the power cord into an outlet and the phone cord into a phone jack, and the machine configures itself. Each time you use it you just hit the power button and the machine connects you with its internal 56 kilobit-per-second modem, using either a local or a toll-free number. If you're not local to one of its 300 access points, you pay no more for 800-number access, unlike with a typical Internet service provider.
The I-opener costs $199, and there's a monthly charge of $21.95 for unlimited access, which is the same as America Online, but slightly more than most Internet service providers (ISPs).
For e-mail, you get an address book and the ability to send and receive attachments, though you can't automatically append a signature to outgoing e-mail or filter incoming e-mail. For Web surfing, you can save your favorite sites, and you can access news, weather and other preconfigured sites by hitting special keys on the keyboard. There's even a key for ordering pizza locally. The proprietary browser supports audio but not video.
The unit itself looks a bit like a notebook computer. The 10-inch flat-panel color display is similar though smaller than those used with notebooks. But with its 800 by 600 resolution, it's quite readable. The keyboard, though detached, has an integrated pointing device similar to those used in portable PCs.
Because one logical market for Internet devices such as the I-opener is people who came of age before the era of personal computers, I gave the unit to my parents to test. Their technical ability is such that they have no problem turning on a light switch. They were able to get up to speed quickly enough despite stumbling a bit while coordinating the pointing device. In the first half of this year Netpliance plans to release another version of the I-opener with a touch screen that should make navigating even easier.
Though Netpliance expects to sell I-opener through retail stores, it's currently available outside of New York City, NY, only from the company through its Web site at www.netpliance.com, by phoning (888) iopener, or from a smattering of mall kiosks.
This is a new product, and some "bleeding-edge" glitches can be expected. For example, holding down the Caps Lock key crashed the system, forcing me to unplug and replug to get it working again. Also, I sometimes had trouble connecting to certain preconfigured Web sites, and in testing technical support I didn't always receive a call-back within two hours as promised.
Despite the snags, this is a clever product. A number of other companies are planning to release similar devices including big names such as Compaq and Gateway and other smaller companies such as WebMachines and Qubit Technology. Though it's a start-up, Netpliance isn't wet behind the ears. Its founders include former executives from IBM and Cisco Systems.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://members.home.net/reidgold.