Internet leaders debate the future of the PC in consumer electronic devices This year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas highlighted an important issue for Canadian new media providers: the place of the PC in the future digital content stream. Are we, as Panasonic’s Yoshio Tushikawa suggested, approaching the "Post-PC Era"? – or should we prepare for the "Extended PC" era touted by Intel’s Craig Barrett? Superficially, the contrasting visions of traditional PC makers and traditional CE manufacturers are expressed through similar hardware. They both see widespread adoption of a host of new media appliances. For example, Intel’s Barrett showed off the new products that mark Intel’s entry into CE – the "Pocket Concert" MP3 player and a web tablet – a portable touchpad that can be used as a wireless input-output device. Both of these get their content from the Internet via the PC – running a Pentium 4, of course. Likewise, Sony showed its "Wireless AV/IT Gateway", also a portable touch-screen monitor, which permits users to simultaneously view video (at television quality), web pages, emails, or digital still images from a Memory Stick media card. The device draws its content from the ‘Net and cable, but connects via a simple base station with an Ethernet port and an RF input – no PC. Similarly, a new category of "home component Internet audio devices" emerged at this show. Designed to fit into a component sound system, devices like the Panja Broadband Music player deliver streaming audio and MP3.com’s library of music from the Internet directly into the sound system without benefit of a PC. Some also rip the user’s CDs onto a hard drive in the unit. Consumer reaction to these approaches may hinge on content, since the business model behind some of the non-PC devices depends on restricting the user’s content choices. For example, a number of the audio players could only connect to a limited list of web radio and music sources, (usually MP3.com), and some couldn’t access a PC over a home network to play the user’s collection of downloads. Sony’s prize-winning "e Villa" (a new "Net Appliance" with a 15-inch, portrait-oriented Trinitron display, keyboard and mouse) comes bundled with its own ISP service, including content, at US$21.95/month. From the Internet content provider’s point of view, the distinction is important. If consumers opt for convenience and limited control, the provider will have narrower gateways to get through, both from a content and technology point of view, since most of these appliances can’t simply download new software on a common operating system to play new content types. But there’s no reason to assume that this direction will prevail. While sales of PCs are believed to have peaked, Canadian sales of devices like WebTV offer little encouragement that users will accept restricted choice in return for simplicity. Killer app for home soughtA session called, "Internet Appliances: will they live up to the hype?" showcased the strategies of five companies in this area, and highlighted the problems. 3Com’s offering, an appliance called "Audrey" is aimed at solving the problem of coordinating the family calendar – their "killer app" for the home. While MSN Companion focused on ease of use, Netpliance acknowledged that these devices weren’t necessarily for the neophyte, but rather for the TAF – the Technically Advanced Family. Jeff Schindler from Gateway (which offers a Touchpad connected to AOL services) summed up the category’s dilemma by noting that the hardware costs nearly as much as a computer to produce – it lacks only local storage. But consumers expect that a device that provides somewhat less than a PC should cost a lot less than a PC. That means that the hardware must be subsidised with services, which is a hard model to succeed in when so much content is available free.