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A triumph over eVilla: Say goodbye to the Internet appliance

By Michael Gemar (michael@macedition.com), September 4, 2001

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It’s not only the good who die young – it’s also the eVilla. Sony, the biggest name remaining in the Internet appliance market, has pulled the plug on its eVilla Web appliance a scant two months after its release.

The reasons given were “stability and usability” problems, but “sales” problems were the likely root cause. It also couldn’t have helped that BeIA, the operating system used by the eVilla, will no longer be developed in the wake of Be’s asset sale to Palm – nothing like having hardware without an OS under current development.

A dying breed

The eVilla is just the latest poorly-named corpse to litter this landscape, and joins such prominent bodies as 3Com’s cuddly-monikered Audrey and Netpliance’s dorkily-named I-opener. Gateway’s prosaically-labelled Touch Pad, although still breathing, seems none-too-healthy, and may fall victim to the company’s recent troubles. Only Compaq, with its austerely-acronymic IA-1 and IA-2 products, seems willing to tough it out in this market, at least among the big players. For all intents and purposes, the Internet appliance is dead.

How do we do it? Volume!

As tempting as it may be to assign the demise of the Internet appliance to the silly names that the products were saddled with (“I-opener”?! Really!), the failure of this market may be part of a larger trend. The ultra-low-end PC niche has also pretty well dried up, as eMachines, the poster-boy for this market and erstwhile iMac copycat, can attest. This company’s stock is currently trading “over-the-counter” at around two bits a share (after being delisted from NASDAQ and undergoing “restructuring”). Other bargain-basement PC manufacturers have had similar fates. And, of course, the “free” PC movement is long gone – iToaster and Microworkz vanished, and the pioneer of the movement, Free-PC, merged with the aforementioned eMachines (a move that, in retrospect, may be likened to having your lifeboat picked up by the Lusitania).

No matter how hard companies try, it seems that folks just aren’t interested in ultra-cheap hardware – no doubt largely due to falling prices for brand-name full-fledged PCs, lack of consumer confidence in the product quality, and uncertainty over their ability to hang around long enough to honor their warrantees (the latter concern seems well-justified).

Opera caught in the crossfire

Although the death of a major Internet appliance is likely to generate few tears, some collateral damage from the fallout of Sony’s decision will no doubt strike Opera, the plucky independent browser developer whose product was the default browser for the eVilla. As a recent BusinessWeek article suggests, Opera’s business model is based in large part on licensing fees for these kind of devices. With perhaps its highest-profile customer bailing out of this niche, Opera may find its current bottom line dinged by this development, and future licensing agreements (and financing) tougher to come by. If you’re a fan of Opera, be sure to send in your US$39 – it can only help.

As for the eVilla, however, don’t bother to send flowers.

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