For the last few years, the Last Great Hope™ of the consumer electronics industry has been voice assistants. Alexas and Echos and Google Homes and Facebook Portals are all the rage. Over one hundred million Alexa devices have been sold, an impressive feat given that there are only about 120 Million households in the United States, and a similar number in Europe. Look to your left, look to your right, one of you lives in a house with an Internet connected voice assistant.
2018 saw a huge explosion of Internet connected voice assistants, in sometimes bizarre form factors. There’s a voice controlled microwave, which is great if you’ve ever wanted to defrost a chicken through the Internet. You can get hardware for developing your own voice assistant device. 2019 will be even bigger. Facebook is heavily advertising the Facebook Portal. If you haven’t yet deleted your Facebook account, you can put the Facebook Portal on your kitchen counter and make video calls with your family and friends through Facebook Messenger. With the Google Home Hub and a Nest doorbell camera, you too can be just like Stu Pickles from Rugrats.
This is not the first time the world has been enamored with Internet-connected assistants. This is not the first time the consumer electronics industry put all their hope into one product category. This has happened before, and all those devices failed spectacularly. These were the Internet appliances released between 1999 and 2001: the last great hurrah of the dot-com boom. They were dumb then, and they’re dumb now.
The Beginnings of the Internet Appliance
While the Internet has been around since September, it wasn’t until the early 90s that it became a thing. It wasn’t until 1994 that the Today show asked, ‘what is an Internet?‘, with Katie Couric saying, ‘It’s a big computer network that’s becoming really big right now.’
It’s in this environment that the computer became a device to connect to the Internet. The entire concept of personal computers as a device that would expand the capabilities of the human mind was thrown away, and became a device that you could use to send emails. If the 1980s promised computers that would do your taxes and organize record collections, the 1990s promised a device that would allow you to read the newspaper. Computers were not technology anymore, they were gadgets. The Internet was the killer app for personal computers in the home, and that meant an eager market for something that would connect to the Internet.
One of the first such devices was MSN TV, a set-top box that would put the Internet on your TV. This wasn’t a single device, but instead a family of devices produced by various manufacturers including Sony and Phillips. It was not a computer by any stretch of the imagination, but it would allow you to connect to the Internet. You could read anything on the Internet on your TV.
Truth be told, the idea of browsing the Internet on a CRT with NTSC resolution sounds painful, but websites didn’t always demand the resources of today’s AMP mobile pages. Just look at the Space Jam website from 1996. It’s remarkably readable on an old CRT TV. For some, WebTV was the first device that put Internet in the home. Most people just bought a computer, though, but the market was interesting enough that companies poured resources into dedicated devices designed only to browse the Internet.
The most famous of these devices was the 3Com Audrey, an exquisitely designed piece of hardware that was just as functional as a feature phone from half a decade later. The Audrey wasn’t designed for the home office, it was designed for the kitchen, ostensibly to look up recipes, much in the same way the Facebook Portal and Google Home Hub are being marketed today. What could you do with an Audrey? Well, you could browse the Internet. You could send email. There was a calendar and a clock. Unlike many other Internet appliances, there was a USB Ethernet adapter for the upper crust of society that had a broadband connection. Oh, you could also synchronize up to two Palm OS devices. The Audrey could be the central nervous system of the household, where you and your partner could share schedules and notes, and maybe even Graffitti doodles.
There were other devices that fit into the idea of, ‘a computer, but just for the Internet’. The Compaq iPaq was a terrible x86 computer with no expansion at all that only ran a Microsoft web browser. Gateway got into the fray. In 2000, you could walk into a Sears electronics department and find a handful of devices meant to connect to the Internet. No, they didn’t have floppy drives, and they didn’t have DVD drives. They all had terrible displays, and strangely most of them had wireless keyboards.
Why did these devices fail?
Internet appliances like the Audrey and iPaq were all released around the turn of the millennium, in a narrow 18-month window bookended by the Democratic party calling for the deportation of a child back to Cuba and George Bush’s first great test of his diplomatic prowess (it was a success). Wired was a print-only publication about the Internet; HotWired and Wired News were the online imprints. Yes, the 90s were weird. Unimaginably weird. It’s easy to ascribe the failures of Internet appliances to the U-Haul of Herman Miller Aeron chairs we now call the dot-com bust, but the reasons, I believe, are much more subtle than that.
First, the hardware. In the year 2000, it was possible to buy a standard desktop — one that would serve you well to surf the information superhighway — for about a thousand dollars. Spend about $1500, and you’ll get a computer with a DVD-ROM drive, an actual graphics card, a full 128 MB of RAM, and maybe even a copy of Microsoft Works. These were sold by the thousands by the likes of Dell and Gateway. Yes, the specs are laughable today, but this would have been a perfectly serviceable computer. If you were lucky, you might even be able to score one of those fancy flat monitors.
On the other hand, Internet appliances offered much, much less for what was still a significant amount of money. The 3Com Audrey shipped with an x86 chip manufactured by National Semiconductor running at a meager 200 MHz. It came with 32 Megabytes of RAM and a 640 x 480 display. For $500 — the initial price of the Audrey — you could buy a used laptop, and you could run Windows, instead of the QNX-based OS. Sure, there were some neat features found in the Audrey, like the ability to send ‘scribble’ emails to other Audreys, but no one really used that, because it required the receiver to also have an Audrey.
The Compaq iPaq appliance was likewise underpowered. ARM was just the forgotten chipset found in some old weird British computer, so it also came with an x86 chip from AMD, but the memory was topped out at 32 MB. Flash was limited to 16 MB and there was no real operating system to speak of. The OS in the iPaq was Microsoft’s MSN Companion 2.0, an even more limited version of Windows CE. You could run any browser you like, as long as it was Internet Explorer 4.0. No, you could not install RealPlayer, like you could with a used laptop. The initial price of the iPaq was $599, with a monthly fee of $21.95. The Gateway Touch Pad — an utterly ungooglable device released in November, 2000 — also cost $599. It featured a slow Transmeta Crusoe CPU, and could only browse AOL. Five or six hundred dollars was the price of these Internet appliances, and just a few hundred more would get you a real computer. If you were looking at the used computer market, you could pick up a Bondi Blue iMac. Be sure to get the first hardware revision, because that was the one with the mezzanine slot.
Internet appliances failed because, for just a little bit more, you could get an entire computer. They were underpowered, and they really didn’t do that much. Yes, you could type out an email, but there’s no way you could ever download a trailer for a movie from Apple and watch it on one of these devices. There were, simply, better options. Internet appliances were the result of the consumer electronics industry trying anything to ship more product.
I think we’re repeating the same thing with voice assistants, but it’s even worse this time. Every Android phone comes with a Hey Google, and every iPhone comes with Siri. If you have a smartphone made in the last few years, you already have a voice assistant. If you can lean your phone against your coffee maker, you already have a Facebook Portal.
The current trend of Orwellian telescreens installed in every room in your house will die, just like Internet appliances did. All we need now is for Apple to re-create the iPod, and give the industry another thing to chase.