April 4, 2001

OEone aims its Operating Environment at the Webtop world

Author: JT Smith

- By Dan Berkes -
Chicago -- "This isn't an exhibition, it's a competition," said one spring Comdex attendee. A quick look around at the flashy multimedia displays populating the exhibit floor at McCormick Place, and it would be hard to counter that statement. There is proof, however, that the battle of substance vs. style has yet to be decided: OEone.Like many of the Linux-related exhibitors at this year's show, the OEone booth isn't much to look at. There's no techno music blasting from a sound system, no "booth babes," and, thankfully, no group demonstrations or talks offered by a presenter who spent way too much pre-show time at the Starbuck's counter. Despite the absence of all those trade show staples, OEone seems to be doing just fine.

At first, it was hard to understand what was so appealing about OEone's offerings, due mostly to the crowd surrounding the display. After waiting politely for a few minutes, the crowd parted and the object of their attraction was within sight: a trio of Internet appliances.

What's going on here?

Internet appliances are the ugly stepsisters of the consumer electronics market. Early to market gadgets like Microsoft's WebTV are known more for their limitations than for their innovations. Tethered to a dialup Internet and prone to display Web pages in a format that can be charitably described as "non-standard," the anticipated consumer buying frenzy has yet to materialize.

New devices from established manufacturers were supposed to change all of that, but the economic downturn has thrown a monkey wrench into the works. 3Com recently killed off its Audrey "family Internet communications center" device. Depending on whom you talk to, Gateway has delayed or outright cancelled most of its ambitious appliance plans.

Given all of that, what's different about what OEone has to offer?

OEone isn't a hardware manufacturer. As the company name implies, this is an OEM concern that aims to provide the framework, services, and software that other companies need to build the next generation of Internet appliances and other non-desktop Internet access devices.

The company isn't trying to reinvent the wheel. Instead of spending years developing a costly, proprietary set of offerings, OEone has embraced the most popular aspects of the Open Source movement, using Linux as its operating system and Mozilla's browser technology.

At the booth, OEone's vice president of finance Eddie Vlassblom shows off the capabilities of his company's Operating Environment. One is a demonstration of Honeywell's WebPAD Personal Access Device, a new product in that company's line of Geode commercial and consumer Internet services.

Like a set of colorful, curvy bookends, two larger all-in-one prototype units built to display OEone's Operating Environment flank the WebPAD device. As Vlassblom points and clicks his way through the Mozilla-based "Webtop" interface on each device, the OEone booth's mass appeal becomes apparent.

"Loading programs, that doesn't exist anymore," said Vlassblom. While waiting for a Web page hosted on a poky remote server to load, he demonstrates the "always-on" advantage by rapidly switching to the email client, then launching a multimedia player displaying a three-dimensional alien belting out disco tunes.

Unlike its current commercial competitors, OEone's operating device is not a single-minded creature. Users can switch between operations and applications with ease, never disrupting another task in the process. Want to listen to your MP3 collection while getting your daily dose of CNN? No problem.

More than just a single pane from which users can view the networked world, the Mozilla-based Webtop interface features windows that float; objects can be moved anywhere within the display. "We're easy to use, and fully customizable," said Vlassblom. "Whatever users have become accustomed to in the past (with non-desktop Internet access) is different now."

As an OEM supplier, OEone won't be tethered to a single application of its services. The company aims to put its Operating Environment into anything that might benefit from Internet access, including the usual array of cell phones, pagers, and palmtop devices.

The various consumer channels make up just one portion of the market OEone and its partners hope to reach. In fact, it's not even the first market that will see OEone's offerings in action. That honor will go to the medical and associated health care communities, whom Panasonic hopes to attract with a wireless tablet device.

Due out later this year, the rugged, portable gadget will feature the OEone Operating Environment in a large easy-to-read screen. Patients, doctors, and other health care providers would be able to access patient records, write prescriptions, and perform other traditionally paperbound tasks on the go.

National Semiconductor's line of Geode Personal Information Access Devices could expand OEone's reach even further. The company says its devices are designed to be used in a variety of non-traditional settings, such as replacing a waitress' notepad with a wireless gadget that would beam the order right to the kitchen.

Imagine: In a few months, your steak dinner could arrive at your table with the help of Open Source software.

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