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Sony details BeIA-based Internet Appliance. Is it doomed from the beginning?

By BrentN in Technology
Thu May 31, 2001 at 03:37:55 PM EST
Tags: Hardware (all tags)

I just finished reading a short article at Ars Technica about Sony's new eVilla internet appliance. Curious as to the device's specifications and pricing, I sauntered over to the website to investigate. What I found was a great disappointment.

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


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


Would you purchase an Internet Appliance?
o Yes, as my primary computer 0%
o Yes, as a secondary computer for other family members 11%
o Yes, to use as a thin-client on a home or small-office network 41%
o Only if it ran Linux 16%
o Never 30%

Votes: 53
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Ars Technica
o eVilla
o Geode
o eVilla [2]
o Also by BrentN

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Sony details BeIA-based Internet Appliance. Is it doomed from the beginning? | 35 comments (26 topical, 9 editorial, 0 hidden)
Internet devices (3.25 / 4) (#4)
by tumeric on Wed May 30, 2001 at 04:57:52 PM EST

The problem with Internet Devices are that they will never be as flexible as general purpose computers. They can only hope to be competitive on price or ease of use.

Price is a problem, given the rate that bang for buck increases with PC systems and the bargains that are available for old or second hand stock.

Ease of use could be the win. Some people don't want a computer but want to use the Internet for browsing only. There are also institutions such as libraries who would like a device that won't have shareware/porn installed onto it.

Even if the eVilla proves itself to be easy to use, there is the big problem of staying up with developments. Microsoft is doing its hardest to make the Internet into something that requires a Microsoft browser to access it. The upshot of this is, that you have to have a continually evolving browser to keep up. This means that you have install software -- which is never easy and moves the appliance closer to being a general purpose computer

part of why they'll never win in price (2.00 / 1) (#31)
by coffee17 on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 11:38:41 AM EST

is that for the most part they need all the components one needs for a low-end computer.

They need cpu, memory, mobo, sound, display and modem in order to be successful. the only ways that they can save money is by hitting up the low-end cpu's and video cards. But even cpu and memory with most browsers can be scrimped on too much, or it won't be able to keep up with the 56K modem. An even worse issue for the "appliance" market is that their product has to look good. For them, getting the cheapest beige box they can find will not do, not only because it is ugly, but the power supply's fan is probably louder than desired/needed.


[ Parent ]

Be, no video? (4.00 / 3) (#5)
by adrien on Wed May 30, 2001 at 05:08:00 PM EST

Funny that there is no video support on a machine running Be. Be has always been the kick-ass multimedia platform

If this thing has lots of media capabilities (MP3 to home stereo, Video, etc) which would only be logical coming from Sony and Be, it would be a hit. It would also be a competitor to Jobs "digital hub" hoopla ideas.

*Some* video (none / 0) (#17)
by BrentN on Wed May 30, 2001 at 11:39:26 PM EST

The eVilla supports MPEG-1 and RealVideo, but not the more common and widely available QuickTime and Windows Media formats.

I suspect that this is due to licensing issues with Apple and Microsoft.

[ Parent ]

i think these will catch on, soon. (2.33 / 3) (#7)
by rebelcool on Wed May 30, 2001 at 05:18:25 PM EST

While there is definately room for improvement with this device, it's alot better than the other internet appliances. My biggest beef with those has always been the lack of java, flash and other popular webmedia add-ons.

They've also addresses the problem of TV screens meager support of 640x480 by shipping it with a CRT. LCD's are still expensive, and a CRT will keep the cost down. That's not really a downside I dont think, and CRT's arent exactly obsolete and unpopular yet.

As you said, it needs quicktime and media player.

A well designed system needs easy upgradability (these things should download themselves and install themselves..perhaps while the user is asleep) and stability. Congrats to Sony for an honestly good attempt.

I would definately recommend such a device to a friend who's not real computer saavy, but needs the internet. Such as my mom.

COG. Build your own community. Free, easy, powerful. Demo site

I disagree (4.00 / 1) (#10)
by WinPimp2K on Wed May 30, 2001 at 05:53:27 PM EST

about them catching on - not about the shortcomings of this particularly obnoxious "me-too" device. If I understand correctly, the only advantage it has over the ill fated Net Appliance was its support for the Sony memory stick technology (which is only an advantage for Sony). The inability to quickly load a graphics intensive website (to say nothing of multimedia, film trailers and so forth) will kill all these so-called appliances that only support a proprietary dialup interface.

[ Parent ]
minor details (none / 0) (#11)
by rebelcool on Wed May 30, 2001 at 07:35:27 PM EST

Thats relatively minor. When someone comes out with an appliance you can hook up to any service, be it dial-up, dsl or cable, then that problem is solved.

In fact, that's probably what the designers of these systems intend, but its some marketing droid that forces the "sony.net" or whatever on them. As for 'inability to load graphics intensive website'.. says who? At least this appliance includes a full-featured browser. The thing is basically a PC without all the extra stuff that someone who just wants to browse the internet simply doesnt need.

COG. Build your own community. Free, easy, powerful. Demo site
[ Parent ]

Dial Up (none / 0) (#20)
by WinPimp2K on Thu May 31, 2001 at 09:40:45 AM EST

and heavy graphics just don't mix. If they came out with a browser based ethernet appliance that was optionally bundled with a DSL or cable modem connection, then they would have something. Of course that means they will have to come up with a plug and play broadband installation package - but they are too busy playing "me too" games to actually study what would be useable after the first few days of gee-whizziness have passed.

[ Parent ]
too expensive, few features (4.00 / 1) (#12)
by arbour42 on Wed May 30, 2001 at 09:12:00 PM EST

I've always been a big fan of Be, but i just don't think the Evilla is going to work.

My main issue is the price. They aren't using an LCD, they have no floppy, no CD-Rom, no DVD, a small CRT (though portrait style is a neat idea), no 10GB hard drive, no Ethernet card (yet), and it is still $500.

And, there is no Word Processor or spreadsheet - why couldn't they use Gobe's office product, built just for the Be Os? You know Grandmama will want to do something else besides typing email. There are just too few features here to justify the price. If it were $250 - $300, under the price of a Palm (and look how Palm is rolling onto its death bed now), the evilla could have a chance.

It's sad because the Be Os will never see the light of day again, and it is so impressive on its own. It has no chance of being GPL'ed, so it will just fade away, which is crummy. Unless some group like AOL/Sony buys it, and realizes the only chance they have against MS is to GPL it, and do it. In 5 years the Be-aol-sony OS would have 10% of the market - wishful dreaming.


[ Parent ]
well.. (none / 0) (#18)
by rebelcool on Thu May 31, 2001 at 02:26:55 AM EST

gpl'ing isnt all that great, honestly. But that's another story.

The current price tag is high. As with most new products. I'm not saying this particular device is the shit, but its definately a step in the right direction.

COG. Build your own community. Free, easy, powerful. Demo site
[ Parent ]

gpl'ing Be OS (none / 0) (#21)
by arbour42 on Thu May 31, 2001 at 01:05:31 PM EST

What i meant by the GPL is that the only hope a small OS has nowadays to get a lot of apps and interest is by being Open Source.

Let's say for some strange reason aol/sony buys be. they need developers, they need applications to go against microsoft, they need lots of device drivers written. This can only happen, with hopes of breaking out with a good marketshare, by being gpl'd.

I've always been partial to Be because it is so more powerful than anything out there. You can do graphics and video on it that are just amazing, but now it is dead...


[ Parent ]
not quite.. (none / 0) (#23)
by rebelcool on Thu May 31, 2001 at 01:09:05 PM EST

only problem with GPL'ing things and giving it over to the community is that you'll get half-assed software and drivers written for it.

To be really competitive, the company would need to make the OS really appealing to other hardware companies. That way official drivers which use the complete hardware capabilities can come out.

And if you're talking a device like this, which isnt meant to be upgraded often, theres no need to not use a proprietary OS. It's not a general purpose computer.

COG. Build your own community. Free, easy, powerful. Demo site
[ Parent ]

My vision for "Internet Appliances" (4.00 / 5) (#9)
by adx on Wed May 30, 2001 at 05:45:44 PM EST

I really like this unit. Especially the CRT instead of using a TV and the expansion possibilities given the USB ports. Now for the downside. Sony (and all other players in the "internet applicance" market so far) are missing one key market, integration possibilities into a home network.

One of these machines would make an excellent "bedroom computer." A simple, small machine that would integrate well with your current home network and let you read email and do some casual web surfing. Unfortunetly, like all the "internet appliances" that I have seen in the past you need to sign a contract to use a provided, dialup service. It's just not worth it.

The people designing these things need to think more in terms of appliances (if they're going to keep calling them that) instead of what they are now. Open them up and let people come up with all kinds of ideas for them. I think you'd be suprissed what would happen then.

Now Nokia is trying to do that with they're new device. (And of course I can't think of the name or find a link right now) But the problem with their device is that it is to be used with a TV.

What someone needs to do is take something like this put it in an iMac case, without the shiny colors, and give it to people to integrate into an existing home network. I can think of all kinds of stuff I'd want to do on a machine like this and given some of the stuff that I've seen Java do in recent months I see a strong future here if someone turns the market in the proper direction.

Anyone want to get into a new start-up with me? ;-)

Someone does do it (none / 0) (#22)
by fluffy grue on Thu May 31, 2001 at 01:05:51 PM EST

Sun does that with their SunRay stuff. Unfortunately, it needs to hook up with their proprietary SunRay server, and there's all sorts of implementation and security issues. They should have stuck to X11 terminals, which are the original graphical thin client. :)

Maybe I should pick up some old Sparc IPCs for my home network. They work pretty well.
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.
I have a master's degree in science!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]
[ Parent ]

Ehh? (none / 0) (#29)
by mindstrm on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 08:00:26 AM EST

Sunray isn't in the same ballpark whatsoever...

And to clarify, Sunray's act as a remote framebuffer/audio buffer/smartcard reader. They don't actually 'run' X, but X runs on the server, so you still have all the benefits of X, without the support on the client end.

Sunrays are like having a bunch of keyboard/monitors/soundcards/mice/smartcard readers hooked up with long cables to a big server.. they just use ethernet instead.

[ Parent ]
Terminals (none / 0) (#33)
by Mitheral on Mon Jun 04, 2001 at 04:27:31 PM EST

So mean Sunrays are just well supported terminals. Man I miss supporting 3270

[ Parent ]
I agree (none / 0) (#25)
by retinaburn on Thu May 31, 2001 at 04:21:00 PM EST

You would figure that they would look at their forcasted numbers and find that more units will be sold if they don't force their IP on users and allow the box to be networked. Can they really believe that they will make more money selling less and forcing their IP on consumers than selling more units and offering their IP at a competitive pricing.

One question about the article, why not use the headphone jack to plug into your stereo, thats what I often use for my MiniDisc. The only problem is that both channels are on the one plug, are their sound cards that seperate them ???

I would have bought one at least as a family computer I don't have to fix everytime the family toasts it.

I think that we are a young species that often fucks with things we don't know how to unfuck. -- Tycho

[ Parent ]
Re: I agree (4.00 / 1) (#27)
by BrentN on Thu May 31, 2001 at 06:30:32 PM EST

You would figure that they would look at their forcasted numbers and find that more units will be sold if they don't force their IP on users and allow the box to be networked.

Yeah, you would. However, if they can't break even on the box, and need the kickback revenue from their partner ISP to make the box profitable, then clearly selling more boxes at a loss isn't better than selling fewer boxes at a profit, unless you look at it as a market penetration issue. It's not a market penetration issue, because they have no idea whether anyone will, as they say, salute this flag as they run it up the flagpole. I suspect that this is a test run for Sony, and they are hedging their bets.

One question about the article, why not use the headphone jack to plug into your stereo, thats what I often use for my MiniDisc.

That's simple: the headphone jack signal has already been amped and volume controlled and equalized and whatever have you. A true line-out will allow you to use your very nice, expensive component amplifier to do all that, instead of relying on the cheap-a$$ stuff that is on the integrated sound board.

Whether mp3 is capable of delivering a sound quality that would make such a setup worthwhile is a different question entirely. I suppose we *might* see Ogg Vorbis support on one of these at some point (yeah, right).

[ Parent ]

Headphone jacks (none / 0) (#30)
by Eccles on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 11:31:06 AM EST

Headphone jacks are often stereo, and the cables are too. You can tell the difference in that stereo jacks have two black stripes instead of one. Splitters that will plug into a 3mm headphone jack and turn it into two RCA-style plugs are widely available. For 99%+ of uses, this should be good enough quality-wise.

[ Parent ]
on pimpn' Be (2.25 / 12) (#14)
by Funk Soul Hacker on Wed May 30, 2001 at 09:38:00 PM EST

Man, that company dropped its wrong side when they got rid their hardware. If they really needed to be cutn down weight they shoulda dumped their OS. I mean, what do you think their chances of selling a closes source, single user OS in today's world could have been. Against Microsoft? Against Linux? Hell, ya'll, They sure as hell can't be Linux on price/performance. They should have stuck with hardware

Now, I know ya'll be sayin, "Funk Soul Hacker, stay off the rock man, you crazy o some shit?" But hear me out, yo! Of course a whole new box, it would have been hard to squeeze in between PCs and da Mac, and I'm not saying they shoulda tried. But look at the target market for BeAI. And it ain't you and me. It's the embedded shit makeaz, dig? And they could be OEMing their hardware out right now. Ain't know open source in that market ('cept fo' maybe the PC hardware desing, if ya'll wana think 'bout it like that). Ain't no Microsoft either, monopolizing all shit.

'Course, they be lookin' to apple for a long ass time to save their asses back in the day, they thought they could pimp Be as the new MacOS. Now, we all know that didn't turn out, and it mighta been to late for those pour souls, know what I'm sayin?

And of course, if Be had walked that walk then they really wouldn't even be the Be we be knowin and we be lovein, know what I be sayin? But if Gassee really did want to save his corp, that woulda been the way fo Be to be, know what I'm sayin?

--- Right about now, Da Funk Soul Hacker
eVilla not Evilla (2.33 / 3) (#24)
by retinaburn on Thu May 31, 2001 at 04:13:00 PM EST

your comment on the name was in my opinion lame. You pronounce it 'e vhillah' not 'evil a'. Don't blame poor marketing on Ameri-speak (croissandwich !!!).

I think that we are a young species that often fucks with things we don't know how to unfuck. -- Tycho

Say it 10 times fast... (none / 0) (#26)
by BrentN on Thu May 31, 2001 at 06:18:03 PM EST

and see how it comes out. Most Anglophones on both sides of the ocean pronounce 'villa' as "VIL-ah" (or more likely, with a schwa as the second syllable). Prepend the long e, and the tendency to stress the first syllable of a word and there you have it.

Like I said in the article, the name is a fairly petty quibble considering all the other things wrong with it, but the fact remains the Sony marketing-types who came up with this name should consider a career change. The name is lame.

[ Parent ]

Austin Powers anyone? (none / 0) (#34)
by Mitheral on Mon Jun 04, 2001 at 04:39:01 PM EST

Every time I read this name I get images of Dr. Evil in my mind. This has to be the least though out product name from a big company since Windows Compact Edition WinCE or whatever they are calling it this week.

[ Parent ]
I have no point (none / 0) (#35)
by Ruidh on Tue Jun 05, 2001 at 10:27:21 AM EST

I just like to say schwa. How come the word 'schwa' dosn't have one?
"Laissez-faire is a French term commonly interpreted by Conservatives to mean 'lazy fairy,' which is the belief that if governments are lazy enough, the Good Fairy will come down from heaven and do all their work for them."
[ Parent ]
A note on sony Memory Sticky. (3.66 / 3) (#28)
by mindstrm on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 07:56:44 AM EST

Is it proprietary? Yes. So what? It really makes little difference at this stage in the game. Here's why.

I have 3 memory sticks. My (Cybershot ds-50) came with a 4MB stick (which is useless for photos), so I bought a 32 MB stick. Later on, I also bought a 64MB stick as 32 wasn't enough to store my photos at high quality.

Did they cost more than CF or SmartMedia? Yes. That is definately one disadvantage....

And the little 4MB stick? It sits in the memory stick slot on my vaio laptop and holds my GPG keyring and other similar sensitive data (too bad I can't boot off it, that would be fun!)

Oh. Anyone can take a PCMCIA adapter and read memory sick on any laptop they want, just like any other type of flash. Or there's the floppy adapter (I assume these exist for other flash as well).

So to say it's only used in sony cameras is basically true, though they also work on the sony portable stick music player (proprietary format though I believe) and can be used to store settings on various high-end sony products.

But what is it you want? I mean, my 2 larger sticks stay in the camera case, it's not like I have zillions of sticks and use them for all kinds of things... In other words, can anyone give examples of *any* type of flash being used interchangably between devices? I don't mean two devices that just take the same kind of flash, but where you actually swap flash between them? Because I really can't think of any...

The name... (none / 0) (#32)
by cezarg on Sat Jun 02, 2001 at 03:10:00 AM EST

is very unofortunate once we play a little with capitalisation:
e v i l L A
I can already imagine all the jokes about this device not being built for the residents of Los Angeles. I can't get over how the marketoids could miss this one! And when I think someone actually took money for thinking this name up all the marketing department anecdotes seem so much more real...

Sony details BeIA-based Internet Appliance. Is it doomed from the beginning? | 35 comments (26 topical, 9 editorial, 0 hidden)
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