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The first $500-and-under Internet appliances are here. But are they really what we'll need?

We got tired of just hearing about how everyone from Apple to Oracle is going to design, build or market some cheap Internet-access box. A box priced under $500. A box that will bring the Web to the missing-out masses who are spooked by PCs and their eye-popping price tags.We were worn out from waiting, so we went looking for what's out there now. We found a pair of I-way toasters that'll be ready to buy soon after you read this.

The more functionally familiar of the two, at least to those who browse from a PC, carries the moniker WEBster, but the dictionary might list it under the word mongrel.

Created by ViewCall America, WEBster looks like a set-top cable box and has both TV and PC elements. The $300 box connects to your TV for its display and to a phone line for its data. Inside reside a 32-bit microprocessor, 4 megabytes of memory, 2 megabytes of ROM and a 28,800-bit-per-second modem. You drive the thing with a handheld, TV-style infrared remote control that has four colored buttons for navigation. An infrared keyboard is optional.

WEBster's custom browser, which works with HTML 3.0 and Netscape, lets users go anywhere on the Net, not just to the ViewCall America home page, which will be chock-full of consumer services such as e-mail, news, sports information and shopping.

An even bigger leap from PC-centric surfing is the Transphone, a telephone basted in bovine growth hormone. This gizmo is about the size of a notebook computer, but it folds up and out to display an LCD screen (in gray-scale for $350 or passive-matrix color for $500) and a keyboard. Features include two PC Card slots designated for SmartCard use, a pair of phone jacks, a 14,400-bps modem, ports for a monitor, printer and mouse, and a credit-card swipe strip.

What's most distinctive about the Transphone is how it will work with the Internet. With only 512K of RAM and a 286 chip, it relies on remote servers for everything, which means that even its look and feel could swing from graphical to textual depending on the server you call.

With its card-ready design, Transphone seems well prepared for shopping. You could, for instance, dial an 800 number, surf a company's site, then swipe a credit card through the machine to buy.

We're not convinced that either appliance will survive in what's sure to be a brutal battle. What the WEBster and Transphone provide now, though, is a hint of what the big boys - Sun and Oracle, for two - may soon give us for less than $500.

This book's barely been opened and the major characters have yet to appear. To wait may not be easy, but in this case, it's the best advice we've got.

Both WEBster and Transphone are expected in June. For more information on WEBster, contact ViewCall America at (770) 729-2929 or ( For information on Transphone, call (800) 872-0809, (613) 236-7799 or ( c. 1996 Computer Life