Network-enabled, IP-enabled, thin server, Web-Enabled and now Internet Appli-ances. What will be the new way of saying it tomorrow, or next week, and where are these devices right now and what do they do?
Today, most Internet Appliances are the behind-the-scenes gizmos that make your daily life easier. Chances are you used one to when you sent a print job to your office printer, or checked the traffic conditions on the WWW before leaving the office. Maybe the email in your inbox with the PDF attachment of the information you asked for came from an Internet Appliance. Perhaps you logged into a web site to get a live image of surf or snow conditions before you planned your weekend but didn't realise you were communicating with an Internet Appliance.
Having worked for a pioneer in Internet Appliances for more than half the 1990s, I have seen these gizmos start out as convenient modules that interface peripherals like printers, scanners, hard discs or CD arrays onto the Local Area Network. We called these products Thin Servers because they got rid of the need to use a [fat] PC or server as the connectivity device. Gradually the technology has become embedded onto the main-board of those peripherals.
Right now a digital network camera you can buy for less than $1,000 has a LAN interface, an IP address and a web server built inside it. If you open a web browser and type in the camera's IP address, it will send you images - live. The implication is that the camera can be in complete isolation - like the one currently in Antarctica that allows us to view what's happening on the South Pole from our laptop . Now, that's a true Internet Appliance!
Another emerging device - a document server - keeps a list of your email addresses in its memory. This allows you to scan a document at the press of a button and send it as an email attachment to the Internet destination you select. Some scanner manufacturers are embedding this capability into their models, gradually forming a path that will turn common products into Internet Appliances.
Experience shows Internet Appliances are likely to be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. We are not suddenly going to need Internet-connected refrigerators, clothes washers or microwave ovens, but we already want to print a document on a remote printer via the Internet. This task has become possible since last decade's printer server has adapted to the role of making your office printer an Internet Appliance.
That's the practical side of this technology. The other side is about folks like that Swedish engineer who can remotely mow his lawn via the Internet.
As broadband and always connected' technologies become more common in our homes, Internet Appliances will be adapted to give us remote access to more basic home appliances. For now, though, most of them are performing business tasks and helping us around the office where there's a quiet but flourishing market for modules and discreet devices.
Internet-savvy system integration companies are seeing the current Internet Appliances and thin server modules as a way to expand the peripherals market by making peripheral devices a network resource, rather than an afterthought. A document server module that turns a scanner into shared network resource provides a breakthrough in the demand for scanners. If a high-speed scanner can be shared across the network or Internet by the addition of a thin server, the purchase decision for the client becomes easier and coincidentally, the role out and cost of network infrastructure is increasingly justified.
So if you don't think Internet Appliances are humming across the Net right now, wait till you see what the next gardener you hire might be using to mow your lawn. Christopher Jefferis is national manager of Axis Communications