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Give Me Performance, Not Gizmos!
by Mark Sedenquist

(**Update 12/02: As of 11/15/00, Virgin Connect cancelled the program reviewed here and recalled all Webplayers. The company also agreed to delete all the personal information it had collected from the devices.)

For the past couple of months, we have been using an "Internet appliance" and testing its functionality for use by other dashboarders. There are a number of such devices currently on the market; this one is the "Webplayer," which is a proprietary product owned and distributed by Virgin Megastores. The Webplayer has two primary functions: a) it provides a streamlined point of Web access so that consumers can purchase products and services, and b) it collects valuable information about the consumer's interests and traffic profiles while on the Web. Use of the Webplayer is governed by a generous three-year rent-to-own equipment agreement and acceptance into the VirginConnect Service membership.

The Webplayer is approximately 10" x 12" and features a fold-up 10" flat-panel monitor and a well-designed 8" keyboard that connects to the CPU by means of an infrared port. Mouse functions are accomplished through the manipulation of a roller bar in the upper right corner coupled with a single and double-click button on the upper left. Unlike traditional PC's that require booting up and several keystrokes to reach the web, the Webplayer succeeds in reducing these steps to two. A on/off push button and simple click on the sign-on button brings the consumer, (via directly to the VirginConnect website. Not surprisingly, this first web page introduces the consumer to products and services produced by Virgin Megastores.

Navigating the VirginConnect Web site is made easier by twelve "hot button" function keys located on the top of the keyboard. These function keys are identified with graphic representations and include music & video, books, travel, apparel, money management, classified, live events, technology, a Qpass wallet (provided by Inktomi Inc. for on-line shopping), and VirginConnect membership services. Pushing any of these function keys connects the consumer to the portal pages created and maintained by VirginConnect. As a result of the personal profiles that are developed from tracking the consumer's usage through the VirginConnect service one finds that the blend of advertisers and web resources change. While it seems clear that the corporate line-up of service and product suppliers found through the VirginConnect service is determined by who is affiliated with Virgin, some of the specific companies are interesting. For instance, under "books," two of the three vendors are independent booksellers-- Powell's in Oregon and Wordsworth in Massachusetts-- and there's nary a mention of the best-known players in the field. The design and function of the "hot buttons" is probably the thing I liked best about the Webplayer.

Surprisingly, the privacy issues would be less troublesome if the equipment had more functionality. The current theory about Internet appliances is they do not need to be as feature-rich as PCs, and that consumers will purchase these devices because they are so simple to use. Granted, the Webplayer is cute and requires minimal expertise to operate. But if I am going to give up the processing speed and functionality of my 600 MHz PC, an Internet appliance had better offer some inducements beyond simple low cost. For dashboarders, such devices might one day eliminate the need to carry laptops and/or racked PCs in our mobile offices. In my view, a useful Internet appliance might not require a keyboard at all. It could have a touch-screen, high-resolution monitor coupled with voice-recognition capability so that an e-commerce transaction, (like ordering a CD for a birthday present or booking a vehicle service date or obtaining current weather and road conditions) could be completed in a matter of seconds instead of the laborious process of 30-60 minutes currently required using the Webplayer or any other PC-based Web browser.

VirginConnect's Webplayer may be a step in the right direction, but it needs to think past the PC box. Unless they can outstrip them in convenience and functionality, low-cost gizmos cannot effectively compete with the far superior performance and capabilities of today's PCs.

Mark Sedenquist
Las Vegas, Nevada
July 17, 2000