Like all so-called internet appliances, the eVilla claims to provide a simple way for users to access to most popular features of the Internet without the "hassle of a computer." On the surface, this would seem to be a widely popular product, appealing to the large masses who are forced to suffer the money and time drain of purchasing and maintaining a Windows PC to simply read email and casually surf the web. The internet appliance concept has not caught on yet, and the eVilla suffers from many of the same faults as prior attempts to make Internet access a commodity entertainment service.
What is there to like?
The eVilla internet appliance ships with a cornucopia of high-tech goodies. The operating system is BeIA 1.0, the "embedded" version of BeOS that Jean-Louis Gassee and company are hoping will save their faltering company. If BeIA retains the smoothness and technical quality of the full-fledged BeOS R5, then there certainly won't be much to complain about in this regard.
The internal processor is a National Semiconductor Geode GX1R processor running at 266 MHz, with its companion CS5530A south bridge chip, which also provides graphics/video and audio support.
The unit itself comes with an integrated 15" 1024x800 Trinitron portrait display, integrated stereo speakers, a Sony Memory Stick slot, PS/2 mini-keyboard and mouse, 2 USB ports, Ethernet (RJ-45) and modem (RJ-11) connectors, and an audio out for headphones and speakers.
The system appears to be initially priced at $500. This price seems reasonable given the relative quality of the components. It is approaching the low-end for computer systems, however, and a sharp downturn in the price of low-end kit will quickly push the eVilla into the realm of "too pricey for what you get." In the current market, however, the eVilla seems priced to sell well to the Internet newbie segment.
The eVilla website contains a Flash demo and information about the unit. Sony appears to marketing this as a tool not only for the technically illiterate, but also for power-users who want a simple tool to appease the family. The unit supports multiple users (up to 4), allowing different family members to keep their own email addresses in the unit. The email client is IMAP, not POP, reducing the need for storage in the eVilla unit itself.
While the specifications mention nothing about internal storage, the operating system supports USB connected Zip 100 and 250MB disks, as well as Sony's proprietary and incompatible-with-everything-except-Sony-digital-cameras Memory Stick technology.
For web browsing, the system ships with Opera 4.0, enhanced with RealPlayer, Flash, and Java plugins. The system also includes audio jukebox software supporting both streamed and local music in MP3, WAV, AIFF, and RealAudio formats, and movie player software for MPEG and RealVideo files.
On the first glance, this appears to be an excellent unit for light usage, bridging the gap between the "dedicated email terminals" that previous internet appliances have been and a full computer system. However, Sony's designers and marketeers have made some very serious mistakes with the eVilla.
What is not-so-good?
The first problem with the eVilla is the name. It looks nice on paper, but say it out loud. Yeah, "EVIL-a." This is clearly a poor marketing decision even if i- and e- everything weren't becoming rapidly passé. This is a petty quibble, though, so I'm getting it out of the way first. The unit's real problems are much more serious.
In what is certainly as cost saving effort, the eVilla ships with a CRT, not an LCD. This means that the system will not be desk-space friendly. I note that none of Sony's promo shots of the unit are from any angle other than dead-center.
It is somewhat disappointing that the eVilla only comes with a headphone jack. It would be much nicer if RCA line-outs were also available so that the eVilla could play MP3's to an existing stereo system. From the looks of the unit, the built-in speakers are not impressive. Support for the USB speakers, such as Harmon-Kardon's SoundSticks and iSub would go a long way in alleviating this deficiency, but no such support is listed.
In the multimedia realm, eVilla doesn't support QuickTime either as a browser plug-in, or in a standalone player. Given the large number of QuickTime streams and QuickTime encoded movies available on the internet, this is certainly a strategic blunder. Similarly, eVilla lacks Windows Media support. Both QuickTime and Windows Media have a significant userbase due to the fairly lenient licensing schemes used by Apple and Microsoft for these technologies. It goes without saying that without QuickTime or Windows Media support, it will be extremely unlikely that Grandma will be able to use the eVilla to view the videocamera clip of the grandkids that you emailed her. Considering the software is kept in the unit's 24 MB Flash ROM, it seems possible and likely that Sony intends users to be able to update the eVilla. Such an update could include QuickTime and Windows Media support.
The lack of internal storage presents an even stickier problem in regards to your videoclips: where do they go? This also applies to using your eVilla as an MP3 jukebox. Theoretically, the USB connection, at 12 Mbps, is speedy enough to handle the demands of video or audio. My experience with the Zip media, even over ATA, is that there is an incredible latency that makes playing MP3's an unsatisfying endeavor.
Never fear, you might think, the system has built-in Ethernet. One should be able to set up a Linux or *BSD based server on the home network that'll use fetchmail to fill up local mailboxes, and imapd to serve them to the eVilla. For MP3's, just load up icecast. Let me go ahead and dash your hopes right now and reveal the eVilla's Achilles' heel: The ethernet port isn't available. Sony's specifications label the Ethernet port as "For future use."
As a matter of fact, the eVilla suffers from the same crippling flaw as many other previous IAs - you are required to use the "bundled" eVilla ISP for service. Sony's website is quite clear on this fact. You won't be able to use the eVilla with your cable modem, nor as a thin client on your home network.
Doomed from launch?
This last flaw is the telling one. While Sony is attempting to market the eVilla to a wide audience, the device's inability to work in a networked environment will prevent it from catching on in the "power-user" segment that Sony claims to also be addressing. I noted above that it is possible that Sony intends to add functionality to the eVilla. The label "For future use" on the Ethernet and other items in the specification certainly seems to indicate such a plan.
The insistence on the eVilla bundled ISP, however, indicates that Sony intends to make money off the eVilla by trapping people into an internet service contract. This means that it is likely that margins on the hardware itself aren't sufficient to make the venture worthwhile. Given the constant downward pricing pressures on full PC systems, it will not be very long before the price diffence between the eVilla and a "bargain-box" PC is negligible. Sony will have a difficult time selling the units under those conditions.
If Sony were to enable the Ethernet port, and allow the eVilla unit to be used as a home-user thin-client, then it would be an ideal purchase for a second or third computer in a family home as well as an Internet for Dummies box. Not only would this allow the eVilla to access local network services, but also to use broadband access in lieu of pokey 56k dialup service