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www.ednmag.com

Apr il 26, 2001 | edn

97

techtrends

By Greg Vrana, Technical Editor

At a glance................................98

For more information ..........102

A Web appliance by any

other name is still...a PC?

Type www.webpc.com into your Web browser, and it will take

you to a Dell Web site, telling you that you have requested a page

that does not existósort of like Dellís WebPC itself. Dell pulled the

plug on its first attempt at a Web appliance, introduced in 1999,

WEB APPLIANCES ARE GOING AFTER TWO

GROUPS OF PEOPLE THAT BOTH WANT TO

BROWSE THE WEB AND SEND E-MAIL. BUT

ONE GROUP LOVES TECHNOLOGY, AND THE

OTHER BARELY TOLERATES IT. CAN YOU

BUILD A DEVICE THAT APPEALS TO BOTH

MARKETS?

after only six months. Last year 3Com,

Compaq, and Gateway all introduced

their own interpretations of a Web ap-

pliance. But, according to Cahners In-

Stat Group, 2000 was a bad year for these

devices, too. In fact, 3Com announced in

March that it is discountinuing its Audrey

Web appliance for business reasons. De-

spite this bad news, Sony and Intel will

both this year introduce their versions of

Web appliances. Just because a product

flops the first few times doesnít mean itís

a bad idea. PDAs (personal digital assis-

tants) are good examples. After Apple

embarrassed itself with the Newton, Palm

refined the concept into the successful

Pilot.

Web-appliance companies hope to

find the sweet spot in features and price

to create a compelling product. The mar-

ket will determine whether any of them

succeed, but you may until then find it in-

teresting to see what engineering trade-

offs these companies are facing and what

they think is the right answer.

Before peeking behind the bezel of a

Web appliance, itís helpful to understand

what market these devices address. In-

Stat believes that they address both the

tech-savy and the techno-phobe markets.

The tech-savvy market includes people

who own PCs; they understand technol-

ogy and arenít afraid of it. The techno-

phobe market includes people who find

PCs intimidating but are intrigued by the

idea of sending e-mail and exploring the

Web. The early adopters will be the tech-

savvy PC owners who want access to the

Web and their e-mail in a convenient lo-

cation, such as the kitchen counter or cof-

fee table. But In-Stat believes that the

technophobe market has the most po-

tential.

YOU CAN TELL THEYíRE RELATED

Web appliances and PCs are architec-

turally related, but they have differences

(Figure 1). One of these differences is

their requirements for processing pow-

er. Because you might use a PC for any-

Page 2

techtrends

Web appliances

98

edn | April 26, 2001

www.ednmag.com

thing from simulating a supersonic gas-

flow- dynamics problem to balancing

your checkbook, manufacturers put the

highest frequency processor they can af-

ford in a PC of a given price range. But if

you know the most demanding applica-

tion you will ever run is a Web browser,

then you can get by with considerably

fewer megahertz and save some money.

In fact, National Semiconductorís Geode

integrated processors take advantage of

this characteristic by sacrificing a high

clock rate for a high level of integration,

yet they deliver Web-browsing perform-

ance comparable with microprocessors

running at a much faster clock rate. The

233-MHz Geode SC3200 integrates an

MMX-compatible x86 processor with

a memory controller, a 2-D graphics ac-

celerator, a video processor, a PCI-bus

controller, an audio interface, and three

USB ports (Figure 2). Several Web ap-

pliances, including 3Comís Audrey (Fig-

ure 3), use Nationalís integrated x86

processors.

Itís no coincidence that the CPU in

most Web appliances is an x86 processor.

By using an x86, you can leverage the mil-

lions of lines of code written for it, plus

take advantage of the tools, support, and

experience base that the processor enjoys.

The most popular Web browsers and

browser plug-ins are written for the x86.

Using the x86 almost guarantees that

your browser will support the media for-

mats available on the Web, including for-

mats you havenít yet heard of. Nationalís

x86 chips also show up in Honeywellís

WebPAD and Qubitís Orbit Web Tablet.

But National isnít the only low-cost-x86

manufacturer. The Compaq iPaq IA-1

and IA-2 use AMDís K6-2 processor, and

Gatewayís Connected Touch Pad uses

Transmetaís TM3200 chip.

Ironically, one of the only companies

bucking the trend to use Intel x86-com-

patible processors is Intel. The company

previewed its ARM-powered Web Tablet

at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in

January. The Web Tablet uses Intelís 32-

bit StrongARM SA-1110 integrated

processor running Wind Riverís Vx-

Works RTOS.

Using a low-power processor in a bat-

tery-powered Web appliance, such as the

WebPAD and the Web Tablets, seems ob-

vious enough, but line-powered Web ap-

pliances also use them. The reason is

twofold. First, the manufacturers can

eliminate some cost by obviating the need

for a cooling fan. More important, elim-

inating the fan eliminates noise. If Web

AT A GLANCE

Web appliances are trying to fit into

both the tech-savvy and the technophobe

markets, and neither has proved viable.

Web appliances are architecturally simi-

lar to PCs, and most are based on the x86

core.

The high cost of LCDs keeps the price

of Web appliances close to that of low-end

PCs.

There is no allegiance to Microsoft

when it comes to Web-appliance OSs.

SYSTEM MEMORY

VIDEO PROCESSOR

GEODE

GX1

CONFIGURATION

BLOCK

FAST PCI BUS

RF CONNECTION:

BLUETOOTH

DECT

802.11

OTHER

BIOS FLASH

DISK ON CHIP

USB PORTS

AUDIO CODEC

AUDIO AMP

MICROPHONE

IN

INTERNAL

MICROPHONE

CLOCK AND RESET

LOGIC

CORE LOGIC

HEADPHONE

SUPER I/O

FAST X-BUS

LCD

X-BUS

PCI BUS

PCI/SUB-ISA

CPU

MEMORY

CONTROLLER

2-D GRAPHICS

ACCELERATOR

PCI-BUS

CONTROLLER

DISPLAY

CONTROLLER

VIDEO

SCALING

VIDEO

MIXING

LCD DRIVER

USB

PCI/SUB-ISA-

BUS INTERFACE

PROGRAMMABLE

INTERVAL TIMER

PROGRAMMABLE

INTERRUPT

CONTROLLER

POWER

MANAGEMENT

CONFIGURATION

ISA-BUS

INTERFACE

AC97/AMC97

CODEC

INTERFACE

DIRECT MEMORY

ACCESS

CONTROLLER

GENERAL-

PURPOSE I/O

LOW-PIN-

COUNT BUS

INTERFACE

UART3 AND

INFRARED

UART1

UART2

ACB1

INTERFACE

ACB2

INTERFACE

BRIDGE

IDE INTERFACE

REAL-TIME CLOCK

ISA-BUS INTERFACE

F i g u r e 1

The wireless WebPAD is architecturally similar to a PC.

Page 3

www.ednmag.com

Apr il 26, 2001 | edn

99

appliances are going to live with us in our

living rooms and kitchens, they must

blend in with our surroundings and not

give off that constant drone weíve become

accustomed to with desktop PCs.

The biggest trade-off Web-appliance

engineers face in their designs is the dis-

play. Their choices are the LCD and the

CRT. LCDs offer low power, light weight,

and compact size but are relatively ex-

pensive. LCD prices have recently been

falling, but they still account for one-

third to one-half of the total bill-of-ma-

terials cost. Among LCD technologies,

TFT (thin-film-transistor) LCDs offer

superior low-light performance over

DSTN (double-layer supertwist-nemat-

ic) LCDs. Most vendors have settled on

the 10-in. LCD as a good compromise

between cost and readability. CRTs, on

the other hand, are much less expensive

for a given screen size. However, they

consume more power, dissipate more

heat, and outweigh equivalent LCDs. Al-

most all Web appliances use LCD screens.

One exception is Compaqís iPaq IA-2,

which comes with a 15-in. color CRT dis-

play. As a comparison, the iPaq IA-1 costs

$100 more than the IA-2, but its LCD

screen measures only 10 in. diagonally.

CHOOSING AN OS

Diversity among Web appliances ap-

pears in an area that their users will prob-

ably never notice: the operating system.

Intelís Web Tablet runs VxWorks from

Wind River. Compaq and Honeywell

chose to go with Microsoftís WinCE.

Sonyís eVilla and Qubitís Orbit are run-

ning BeIA from Be. QNX powers 3Comís

Audrey, and Gateway bases its Connect-

ed Touch Pad on a version of Linux that

Transmeta developed.

Because choosing a Microsoft operat-

ing system for your platform isnít the au-

tomatic decision it may be for PCs, you

need to consider the pros and cons of the

alternatives. As with the x86 architecture,

a Windows-based OS has definite ad-

vantages. Windows CE has a familiar

look and feel, but that feature may be ir-

relevant if you want to create your own

graphical-user-interface experience. CE

also has all the standard applications and

plug-ins for your browser, but, if you

want enhancements and customizations,

consider the effort youíll face in negoti-

ating these changes with Microsoft ver-

sus a smaller company, such as Be or

QNX. Also, these smaller companies have

a lot riding on getting their OSs into your

platform. Check to see which ones sup-

port the features and browser plug-ins

you want and which companies are will-

ing to add it. If customization and con-

trol over your OS is critical, then Linux

should be at the top of your list. Linux

lets you tweak the code to your heartís

content, and its price is right, too.

The National Semiconductor Geode SC3200 is

an integrated x86 processor targeting Internet

appliances.

F i g u r e 2

Page 4

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Apr il 26, 2001 | edn

101

techtrends

Web appliances

Another issue to consider is the

amount of memory the OS requiresó

not just for the OS but for any applica-

tions you want to run. A common con-

figuration is 32 Mbytes of SDRAM and

16 Mbytes of flash memory. Also, think

about how you will update the software

running on your appliance. And donít

forget about one of the more annoying

aspects of your PCís OS: its boot time. A

true appliance suggests that itís instantly

available. How many of us would put up

with a microwave oven that required

waiting a minute or two before you could

punch in 15 seconds on the keypad to

heat your blueberry muffin?

Bandwidth is another trade-off that

Web-appliance designers face. Most ven-

dors include at least a modem port to ac-

cess the Internet. Even at 56 kbps,

modems make a lot of sense because

practically every home, apartment, office,

and hotel room has a phone jack. But if

your market is the tech-savvy crowd, it

most likely has broadband Internet ac-

cess and may not even consider your

product if an Ethernet port isnít at least

an option. Because phone jacks and net-

work hubs are less common than AC wall

outlets, Honeywellís WebPAD and Intelís

and Qubitís Web Tablets give you wire-

less Web access. The downside to elimi-

nating cables is adding the cost of radio

transceivers in both the handheld device

and the base station. No cables also

means no line power, so you must add ei-

ther rechargeable batteries and a recharg-

ing dock or use disposable batteries.

Whether to provide for expansion is

another issue to consider. By including a

PC Card slot, for example, you allow

your customer to add features later. Ex-

pandability is also a way to reduce the

initial purchase price because the basic

configuration need not include a lot of

features. Of course, any provision for ex-

pansion adds to the cost in connectors

and support circuitry. By making a Web

appliance expandable, however, you be-

gin to cross that threshold to PCs. One

reason that PCs are unreliable is that

users can add third-party software and

hardware to them. It does make sense,

however, to allow a user to print a Web

Audrey from 3Com

(now discontinued) is

one of several Web appliances that use an x86

processor.

F i g u r e 4

Philipsí Net Display Module integrates Web-

appliance electronics within an LCD panel.

F i g u r e 3

Page 5

techtrends

Web appliances

102

edn | April 26, 2001

www.ednmag.com

page or an e-mail. Most Web appliances

come with at least one USB port so that

you can connect a printer, but these ap-

pliances usually support only one or two

models of printers. If they are not stan-

dard, some of the appliances can also ac-

commodate an optional USB keyboard

or mouse.

WHAT YOU CAN THROW AWAY

As for adding or upgrading software,

Web-appliance vendors are relying on

the deviceís Internet connection. Some of

the appliances can download patches and

upgrades under the direction of their

vendor or Internet-service provider,

making it much easier to control what

software is on the system. Installing up-

grades in this way also eliminates the

need for a floppy-disk or CD-ROM drive.

Doing away with a removable-media

drive not only reduces cost but also pre-

vents users from installing unsupported

software. Keeping user-installed software

off Web appliances increases reliability

and reduces the chances of a virusí find-

ing its way onto the system.

Web appliances lack not only floppy-

disk and CD-ROM drives, but also hard-

disk drives. Using an efficient OS and

only a few basic applications allows Web-

appliance designers to get by with a 16-

Mbyte flash chip. Another trick engineers

use to reduce the amount of persistent

storage is to compress the OS and appli-

cations while they reside on flash. By

eliminating the hard drive, manufactur-

ers reduce costs and eliminate another

source of noise.

For those of you who are not into de-

signing a Web appliance from scratch,

some companies will sell you the guts

and let you add your own cus-

tomization and value. One ex-

ample is the Philips Net Display

Module (Figure 4). Philips be-

lieves that the Web-appliance

market needs an economy of

scale to succeed and drive down

LCD prices. By providing 80% of

the functions of a Web appliance,

Philips hopes its Net Display

Module will attract enough cus-

tomers to get the volumes that

lead to lower costs. Philips offers the

module in the lower cost S10LP-NG ver-

sion, which uses Nationalís SC3200 sys-

tem chip, and the higher performance

S10LP-TC version, which features the

Transmeta TM3400 processor. Both sup-

port wireless-Internet access and have

10.4-in., thin-film-transistor LCDs. The

Net Display Module integrates the moth-

erboard in the LCD panel, yielding a rel-

atively thin assembly and lower overall

cost.

The jury is still out on whether Web

appliances are the future or a fad. Most

tethered appliances retail for around

$500, which is close to what a low end

desktop PC with a CRT monitor costs. If

your company sells both prod-

ucts, you may not care which

one sells the most. But if you

are betting your company or

division on a Web appliance,

you need to offer the consumer

a compelling reason to buy one

instead of a cheap PC. LCD

prices are keeping the cost of a

Web appliance too close to the

low end of the PC market. Even

if LCD prices drop drastically,

the cost of manufacturing a low end PC

may sympathetically drop. Web appli-

ances need a convincing answer to the

question, ďWhy not a PC?Ē

FOR MORE INFORMATION...

For more information on products such as those discussed in this article, go to our information-request page at www.ednmag.com/info. When you con-

tact any of the following manufacturers directly, please let them know you read about their products in EDN.

AMD

1-800-538-8450

www.amd.com

Enter No. 301

ARM

1-512-327-9249

www.arm.com

Enter No. 302

Be

1-650-462-4100

www.be.com

Enter No. 303

BSquare

1-888-820-4500

www.bsquare.com

Enter No. 304

Compaq

1-800-888-0220

http://athome.compaq.com/

showroom/static/ipaq/

intappliance.asp

Enter No. 305

Dell

1-800-999-3355

www.dell.com

www.webpc.com

Enter No. 306

Frontpath

1-408-588-8800

www.frontpath.com

Enter No. 307

Gateway

1-800-846-5211

www.gateway.com

Enter No. 308

Honeywell

1-973-455-2000

http://content.honeywell.

com/Home/webpad/

webpad.htm

Enter No. 309

Intel

1-408-765-8080

www.intel.com

Enter No. 310

Internet Appliance

Workshop

1-888-265-8122

www.netapplianceconf.com

Enter No. 311

MediaQ

1-408-733-0080

www.mediaq.com

Enter No. 312

Microsoft

www.microsoft.com

Enter No. 313

National Semiconductor

www.national.com

Enter No. 314

Philips Components

1-408-617-7700

www.components.

philips.com

Enter No. 315

QNX

1-800-676-0566

www.qnx.com

Enter No. 316

Qubit

1-303-716-7826

www.qubit.net

Enter No. 317

Siemens

www.ic.siemens.com

Enter No. 318

Sony eVilla

www.evilla.com

Enter No. 319

3Com

1-800-638-3266

ergo.3com.com

Enter No. 320

Transmeta

www.transmeta.com

Enter No. 321

Wind River

1-800-872-4977

www.windriver.com

Enter No. 322

SUPER INFO NUMBER

For more information on the

products available from all of

the vendors listed in this box,

enter No. 323 at www.ednmag.

com/info.

You can reach

Technical Editor

Greg Vrana at

1-512-338-0129

fax 1-512-338-0139,

e-mail gvrana@

earthlink.net.

 

 

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