S3 spin-off develops net appliance

"Companies that are trying to make Internet appliances into a PC replacement are going about it all wrong," says Ward Williams, director of product marketing for Frontpath. "This is a whole new market."

The new company is a spin-off of S3, and its announcement comes a little more than a month after S3 closed down its graphics business unit. S3 is announcing the creation of Frontpath on Wednesday, but will not yet disclose the product name, pricing, or partnerships, all of which are already in place.

Its product strategy is to address vertical markets immediately and release a consumer version sometime in 2001.

The unnamed peripheral has a 10.4-inch touch screen. Since it has no embedded keyboard, you enter text through a stylus or a touch-driven on-screen keyboard. Operating on Linux, the appliance is always connected and can access the Internet without you needing to log on.

The unit operates without either power or modem wires, but will require a nearby wireless LAN transmitter (usually hooked to a high-bandwidth modem) in order to send and receive data. Although it is not portable in the strictest sense of the word -- you can't take it out to the beach to surf the Web and check your e-mail -- it will let you refer to the Internet throughout the day from allow within your home or office.

Almost Mobile

As cool and convenient as this may be, its limited scope (the unit won't operate well outside of a 150-foot range from the LAN transmitter) may make it less flexible. Many consumers may wait until a truly portable unit is available. Williams acknowledges this, but he says the product's advantages will overcome any limitations perceived from this lack of portability.

Initial targeted vertical markets include travel, hospitality, real estate, education, and medical. Frontpath intends to build strengths in these areas first, before the consumer rollout.

The company is developing software environments for each category, which will "learn" your habits and suggest similar sites to the ones you visit, according to Williams.

Williams expects the marketing and pricing to follow the mobile phone model: The units themselves will be cheap or free as long as you sign up for an extended service period. Furthermore, Frontpath hopes the product will reach the market ahead of products from larger companies that have not yet determined what the market needs.

"We are a disruptive technology," Williams says. "We are offering something unique and new."