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Charging for feature-free software may launch market

Charging for feature-free software may launch market

I can picture WC Fields dazzling you with his salesmanship: "Step right up, ladies and gentlemen. Today I'd like to show you a contemporary marvel. Yes. It's a new Web browser called the AvantGo Web Client. This feature-lacking software product displays Web pages in a glorious monochrome 160 x 160 pixel window. (Don't handle the merchandise, kid.) You don't even have to surf the Web in real time! In fact, you can't. You download the Web pages from your PC then browse them off-line.

"Now, how much would you pay for a browser like this? (Keep your hands to yourself, kid.) Five hundred dollars? Three hundred dollars? Of course not! Other products load you up with features like preformatted text, colour, high-resolution graphics, plug-ins, forms, CGI scripts, dynamic HTML, Java, Java-Script, VBScript, complex tables, secure HTTP, e-mail, newsgroups, cookies and more. And they're free!

"But why burden yourself with features when you can have this little beauty, this phenomenon of modern engineering for just $US99? (Go away kid, you bother me.)"Now, why should you pay $US99 for a Web browser that does a tiny fraction of what free browsers can do? (Yes, I've often asked myself that very question on those rare occasions when I'm sober. But I'm afraid I can't stay sober long enough to figure it out.) I'm obliged to tell you this because this isn't just any browser. This honey runs on a US Robotics PalmPilot."

Web Client is a gas

That is, indeed, why Web Client is worth every penny.

Imagine for a moment how you'd handle the problem faced by a company called Grenley-Stewart Resources. Grenley-Stewart provides automated fuelling services by giving drivers special cards that bill the company for fuel costs. Truckers get their fuel faster, and they don't have to fuss with tracking expenses. The best way to take advantage of a service like this is to equip your truck drivers with the latest maps to the nearest authorised fuelling stations.

Better still, give them access to the latest pricing information so they can go to the most desirable station, not just the closest one.

Now, you could shuffle paper maps. You could buy PalmPilots and write custom software. (Anyone who has tackled the synchro-nisation API for PalmPilots would know better.) You could buy notebook computers and customise a mapping and price-tracking application. You could create a Web application, publish it on the Internet, and give your drivers notebook computers with wireless modems.

Standards deviation

Or you could give your drivers inexpensive PalmPilots with the AvantGo Web Client.

In this case, the limitations of the Web Client that I so deliberately exaggerated do not matter. The drivers aren't surfing the Web. They don't even have to know they're using a Web-based application.

All they know is they have touch-screen access to maps, fuelling stations, current pricing and price history. When they plug the Pilot into the modem cradle at a filling station or motel, their application gets the latest maps and pricing information.

Sure, I'd like to see more features. AvantGo is planning on adding forms capability and other features later this year. But as limited as it is, the AvantGo Web Client is already an ideal solution for many specialised applications for two important reasons.

First, it runs on what amounts to an inexpensive mobile network computing device.

Second, it allows companies to design their applications using standard HTML. No learning embedded-system APIs. No programming language. Nada.

Because the application is based on standard HTML, it doesn't depend on the longevity of the PalmPilot.

That's the power of inexpensive platform-neutral, standards-based computing -- it's safe, easy to build and liberating.

I think AvantGo (www.avantgo.com) is exploiting this power at just the right time -- when customers are doubting that platform-neutral standards have value. AvantGo's success could revitalise the trend. What do you think?


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