Electronic Design

The Post-PC Era Heralds Internet Appliances And Beyond

Electronic-design engineers now find themselves on the verge of a post-PC, Internet era. Connections between people aren't just being made through conventional products, such as PCs with network or dial-up Internet connections. Common lifestyle appliances, like set-top boxes, printers, televisions, and digital cameras, are coming together over a fast-growing, Internet-driven network.

Technology beyond product features, however, affects the adoption and usability of Internet appliances. Issues increasingly relate to how the device will coexist with other technologies. Behind this world of specific-function devices, connections can best be described as the Information Pipeline. The pipeline's paradigm consists of three stages: client, server, and infrastructure. Internet appliances make up the client stage of this model, where data is accessed. Data flows from the server stage. It's then directed from client to server and back via the global-communications infrastructure.

Several basic factors influence the pipeline, especially the design (from business concept to engineering execution) of the client—or Internet appliance—section. Moore's Law continues, so cheaper, more powerful CPUs will have the power to enable mainstream applications with the computing capability of past PCs. This will require more capable, and therefore more complex, software. Many front-end, client-stage devices will become consumer appliances built on powerful, yet compact embedded systems with user interfaces. An Internet appliance's user interface can range from a simple smart-phone based on W-CDMA wireless technology to a web-based screen phone or set-top box with a full windowing system. Depending on the function, additional components can be added.

Once that stage is constructed, the device must be able to reach out to data. The infrastructure section is this connection between devices. The communications infrastructure consists of both the data communications and telecommunications types, though they are converging. It will eventually handle not only the dissemination of data and voice, but video as well. Information is now transported through the infrastructure via protocols such as TCP/IP, CDPD, EDGE, and the IEEE 1394 bus. More powerful devices will require greater bandwidth as the desire grows to connect appliances over the Internet.

By then, volume will have increased for long-haul, last-mile, and LAN wired and wireless connections. Circuit-switched devices will incorporate packet-switched sub-units and embrace TCP/IP functionality.

At the pipeline's server, the information requested by client devices and routed through the infrastructure is stored, calculated, or processed. Traditionally, devices found in this stage have been mainframe and mini computers. But they're being replaced by UNIX-based parallel servers and Microsoft NT-based PC servers with intelligent I/O and clustering technologies. An emerging class of server stage devices, which are more like appliances, simply plug into the network. They begin working without the time, effort, and expertise usually needed for configuration and management.

The single, multifunction PC will certainly give way to many fixed-function Internet devices. Just as the first people to work with electricity thought that electrically generated light was their killer app, we have no idea where we can take these technologies. There will be enhanced value for all embedded users, as well as new market opportunities surrounding Internet appliances.

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