New ideas, new opportunities
For consumers, though, the simplicity of Web service-centric devices is attractive, Kerton said.
"To a lot of consumers, it's not an Internet device," Kerton said. "It's 'Hey, I get my pictures or my music while I'm away.' It does one thing and it's well thought-out."
In particular, these devices can be simple to use because they don't require knowledge of the Internet or even of the Web service to which they connect. For instance, there is no specific option on the Sansa Connect to connect to the Internet. Rather, if you want to get music from the Yahoo Music service, you simply select "Get More Music." The device then automatically connects via a Wi-Fi network, shows available music and downloads the music you request.
Kerton said there are many other potential examples of devices tuned to work with online services. For instance, he said he soon expects to see more wireless digital cameras that connect to photo storage and printing services. He also recently spoke with a start-up that wants to develop low-cost location services for power tools.
"It's aimed at, say, blue-collar workers with expensive drills," he said. "You put a chip in the drill and, if the guy loses it, he can launch an application or device and find it."
Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey said people will eventually expect this sort of seamless connectivity to Web services. However, he stressed that developers must avoid trying to make the experience of using these devices comparable to the desktop experience. That's particularly true because desktop connection speeds tend to be faster, and using a desktop browser is simpler than using a browser on a small device.
"If you're comparing the device to your PC, you may be disappointed," McQuivey said. "But if you compare it, maybe, to your portable CD player, it's a vast improvement."
Small devices integrated with Web services face several broad challenges before they succeed, the experts say. The first challenge is technical.
"The most obvious challenges are screen real estate and the lack of a full keyboard," Yahoo's Mowrey said. "Generally, data input is a real challenge." The next kind of challenge is writing the actual application.
"It's not easy to port a Web application to a small device," Mowrey said. "And the apps generally don't port well from device to device. It's difficult to develop a Web application for one kind of mobile phone, then move it to the Sansa Connect, the iPhone or another type of phone."
Another complicating factor is the variety of widely used connection methods. Do you build the device for Wi-Fi, which is fast but not ubiquitous, or for 3G, which is more ubiquitous but not as fast? A device designed for one type of network would have different characteristics than a device designed for another. For instance, a device that isn't always connected would need more ability to download and store more information than a device that is always connected.
Ideally, devices could connect to all types of networks, but that won't happen for a while, Forrester's McQuivey said.
"Imagine a device that negotiates connectivity among two or three alternatives, like Wi-Fi, WiMax and 3G," he said. "It's a matter of engineering and cost. It's not going to happen soon, but why wouldn't it happen in five years so that the device works in a coffee shop, in a cab and at home?"
That leads to the next challenge: finding the right balance for the device both for the vendor and the user. At the heart of that challenge is defining what, specifically, the device must do.