LAS VEGAS -- The "WWW" of the Internet is being spelled out in new ways now that the Web is growing out of its adolescent stage.
Give a W to "wireless." Give a W to "what you want it to do." Give a W to "without a PC."A good example of all three of those components is being demonstrated this week at COMDEX, the world's largest computer trade show, by World Wireless Communications subsidiary X-traWeb of West Valley City.
World Wireless specializes in radio-based communications devices, its technology best known in the consumer market as the workings in Panasonic's line of Gigarange cordless telephones.
Chairman and chief executive officer David D. Singer said the company was exploring ways to expand the use of its radio-based communications devices by linking them together. "The answer was right in front of us -- the Internet. We just had to learn how to use it."
X-traWeb components that have been on the market for only a few weeks now allow a broad range of appliances to be monitored or controlled over the Internet.
Each appliance is connected to a $75 X-node that communicates wirelessly with a $125-$155 Walkman-sized control box. The box is connected to the Internet over a phone line. The control box can manage as many as 255 appliances within a one-to-two-mile radius.
Each X-node has its own Internet address, and each can be controlled remotely over the Internet.
Singer said as sales volumes increase and drive the cost of each unit down, it is likely the wireless appliance networks will find their way into homes, allowing remote control of lights, thermostats and household appliances. In the meantime, X-traWeb is building a commercial clientele. One application puts X-nodes in vending machines. If the machine is not functioning properly or needs to be restocked, the wireless node sends diagnostic information to a service person's pager. "That way the machine doesn't sit empty until it gets a routine visit on someone's service route," Singer said.
More traditional Internet traffic is being handled in new ways with the introduction of sub-PC devices geared for Web browsing and a separate line of hardware specifically designed to handle e-mail.
Chicago-based Vtech has launched a line of handheld devices that range in price from $79.99 to $149.99 that have simple operating systems and are designed specifically to send and receive e-mail.
Jude Dieterman, president of Vtech's information appliance division, said simplicity of use is the key as the company focuses on the consumer market. "We wanted something you could give your grandma that she would use."
Early next year, Vtech plans to launch a wireless version priced under $200 that will send and receive e-mail automatically over the SkyTel network.
A number of under-$500 iPC (Internet PC) computers meant primarily for Web use are being debuted at COMDEX.
"The iPC is here, and it is going to have a very important impact in the industry," said Tim Bajarin, president of industry analyst firm Creative Strategies.
The RSC-brand WebPAD, for example, is a notebook-size tablet designed for either wireless or phone line connection to the Internet.
The major wireless phone vendors are also offering service that includes access to Internet content that can be displayed on the wireless phone handset or fed through the handset to a laptop computer.
New diversity in the kinds of computing devices that are being offered follows manufacturers' realization that consumers have wanted something besides the traditional PC for specific computing functions, like accessing the Web. "Consumers feel less tied to one operating system and have wanted something simpler," Bajarin said.
Phil Terry, chief executive officer of consulting firm Creative Good, said the most recent technology changes have been consumer-driven, which hasn't been the norm in the computer industry. "There has been growing range among the people who buy the machine we make and have had to figure out how to use them," Terry said. "We're in love with technology, but we forget what the customers want."
New, simpler systems mean less dependence on Microsoft Windows-compatible operating systems and a change in the way consumers use software. A growing number of software applications reside on the Internet, not on the user's computer, offered for use free to add value to a search engine or portal site; or made available on a pay-per-use basis.