A Device That Will Pass the 'Bathroom Test'

By: Steve Outing Throughout the several years that I have been covering the Internet publishing business, it's been a dream of many industry visionaries -- a portable device that would allow an individual to read and interact with electronic news services without being tethered to a wire. Imagine a small, portable tablet, about the size of a magazine, that would allow you to surf news sites on the Web while you lounge on the sofa or during a visit to the bathroom.

Many people have fantasized about such a device, but now the reality is getting closer. Recently, Cyrix Corp., a subsidiary of National Semiconductor, announced a "reference design" for a portable Internet-access tablet called "WebPAD." When WebPADs are a reality (perhaps within a year), they will dramatically change the requirements for how consumers interact with Internet news services. Freeing electronic news consumers from desktop or laptop computers could, in time, change everything.

Here's a brief summary about WebPAD. (Click here to see a photo of a prototype of the device.)
WebPAD is a small tablet, about the size of a thick magazine. It weighs 2.7 pounds, measures 8 by 11 inches, and has a 10-inch color LCD touchscreen supporting high-resolution graphics. User interaction is with a pen stylus or optional keyboard. It is a single-purpose device. It is designed to access the Internet, but is not a personal computer and probably will not have a hard disk. It is not expected to replace a PC, but rather complement it. The concept is the same as the cordless phone you probably have in your house. A base unit is plugged into AC power and a phone line (or high-speed Internet access service, such as cable modem, ADSL, satellite or other service). The portable tablet communicates with the base unit by radio frequency. When the tablet's battery gets low, it is placed on the base unit for recharging, just as cordless phones have a charging base unit. The range of the tablet is about 500 feet from the base unit, so the user can surf the Web while in the bathroom or lounging in a lawn chair in the yard. The device is not capable of giving Internet access far away from the base unit, such as while traveling. Cyrix predicts that the tablets and base units will be priced below $500 initially. Cyrix will not manufacture the devices, but instead is offering up its reference design -- a concept that's been proven in hardware and software -- to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), who now need to take up the charge of building WebPAD-based devices. An "optimized" reference design is scheduled to be ready for OEMs in the first quarter of 1999.

WebPAD may be the best hope for Internet news services looking for an untethered presentation device to help expand the market for electronic news services to a wider audience. This isn't the first prototype of such a device, however. A somewhat similar device called NewsPad was developed in Europe a couple years ago by Acorn, as a way to demonstrate the capabilities of the company's ARM processor. But the NewsPad project never got the additional funding required to move it forward.

According to Roger Fidler of Kent State University, a news media futurist who for years has been espousing the portable electronic tablet as a news-reading medium, activity in the portable tablet field is picking up considerably. However, most of the devices are being designed first and foremost as readers for e-books. Reading electronic newspaper and magazine services, and Internet access, is certainly possible with the e-book devices being designed, but the manufacturers see e-books as the most lucrative and therefore initial thrust. News applications will for the near future take a back seat to electronic books, where some believe there is significant profit potential. The typical e-book-reader model is that the devices are plugged into a phone line and data is downloaded for offline reading -- rather than having a persistent online connection for the tablets. (For a household with cable modem service, the WebPAD tablet could always be live on the Internet.)

Fidler is most optimistic about products being developed by SoftBook and EveryBook, both of which have designed tablet devices that feature larger screens presented in portrait orientation (so that the screen approximates the standard size and orientation of a typical printed document). Another promising entrant in the e-book reader market is NuvoMedia's Rocket eBook. All these tablets plug into a phone line so that users can purchase and download books, documents, magazines, etc.

What can you do with it?

WebPAD takes a different tact than the e-book tablets, since it's about live Internet access sans cumbersome PC cables and phone wires, rather than emphasizing downloading data for offline use. When WebPAD-based devices become commonplace, there are some interesting applications that will affect how news companies use the Internet. For example:

Online television guides will be infinitely more useful if the viewer can have the TV on and look at interactive programming choices on the handheld tablet. Football fans will be able to watch a game, tablet in hand, and participate in a news Web site's chat or discussion forum during the game. Or perhaps they'll monitor the site's game statistics on the Web tablet during commercial breaks, or read a news site's columnist's comments on the game, without having to leave the couch. Working in the kitchen, a home cook could use the tablet to find a recipe from a news site's food area. Shoppers will use the Web tablets to purchase merchandise; e-commerce-enabled Web sites become a sort of interactive version of the age-old catalog. The tablets will be particularly important for TV stations and networks, which will begin to produce Web content that supplements televised programming -- so that viewers watching the local news can be urged to use their Web tablets to reference supplemental material while still watching the tube. Imagine an election night in the future, when your news consumption is a combination of watching televised reports and surfing the Web with a tablet to check on the latest vote tallies. News Web sites will simply be more accessible. With a tablet, you can read a news Web site at the breakfast table instead of the printed newspaper. Multi-purpose

Fidler sees promise in the WebPAD concept, but he believes the tablet device will not find great success unless it does more than just access the Internet. The same goes for the e-book devices. Consumers won't flock to electronic portable tablets unless they do several tasks; a tablet would ideally offer a wireless way to surf the Web and be an e-book and e-magazine reader, for example.

Of course, adding capabilities to the tablets raises the cost. While Cyrix envisions WebPAD as strictly a device for surfing the Web and getting your e-mail, it expects OEMs to decide for themselves whether to add hard disks to the design and give them additional functions. The ideal tablet, says Fidler, would be a low-cost basic model that includes base functionality, with ports to accept add-on features if the user wants to spend more money. A tablet that offers wireless Internet access also needs to have a slot for a user to plug in an e-book memory card, for example, he suggests. Basically, the direction that manufacturers will take is to make the tablets "mobile monitors."

Fidler has been waiting a long time for the day when portable electronic tablets become a viable news publishing medium. In the early to mid 1990s, he ran a research lab for Knight Ridder that tried to push forward the concept, but the newspaper company shut it down. But perhaps the coming year will be a big one for tablet publishing. "I hope this isn't going to be another small wave before the big wave hits," he says.

There's still a long way to go before the technology is more acceptable to the public. Price obviously must be low, and WebPAD's projected below-$500 target is a good start; but it must get still lower -- much lower. Perhaps Internet content services of the future (and maybe that will include newspaper companies) will bundle the tablets with premium subscription offerings, subsidizing widespread adoption of the technology.

Fidler says the screen technology for the tablets still is far from ideal. Screens tend to be expensive; not rugid enough to survive too many bumps and drops; and they consume so much power that battery life for the tablets is typically only two or three hours before recharging is required. What's coming will be plastic substrate-based screens that are "bi-stable" -- that is, once an image is painted on the tablet screen, it no longer requires power to maintain the image. Additional power is pulled only when a change to the image is called.

Fidler is sticking to his predictions that portable electronic tablets will be widely available for consumer use, at affordable prices, by early in the next decade. "We're still on track," he says. Keep an eye on the WebPAD initiative; it could be an important step on the road to seeing Fidler's vision realized.

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This column is written by Steve Outing for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com


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