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Be takes new slant on Net appliance biz

New software targets service providers rather than box makers and users

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Be yesterday introduced a suite of server-side software tools that will allow BeIA-based Net appliance providers to manage their installed base of machines.

Be's launch perhaps doesn't sound much - it certainly appears to have been largely ignored by the IT media - but it's actually a canny development in an unregarded but essential area of the Net appliance market pundits are still waiting to take off.

The suite of tools goes by the BeIA Management and Administration Platform (MAP) and contains back-end functionality to maintain and administer a 'fleet' of BeIA-based boxes out in the field. The suite comprises device management, admin, software mastering, data import, authentication and application delivery servers. The idea is that ISPs, for example, take charge of users' appliances, not the users themselves.

Techies will hate the idea of course - they're the ones who should be maintaining their systems - installing upgrades, adding new applications and features - not the provider. But the target market for Net appliances doesn't comprise the more technologically minded of us. Heck, many PC users never bother to upgrade their system software, and appliance users certainly aren't going to want to.

"People don't know what makes their telephone work, but are confident that they will hear a dial tone when they pick up the receiver. Device and service providers want to offer consumers the same experience with Internet appliances," is how Be puts it.

Essentially, Be's MAP provides a new (ish) model for the appliance market, one that's service-oriented rather than, as is usually the case, a product-oriented approach.

Amazon.com, for example, may decide to offer free Net access via a really cheap box to its customers, with the idea that this will encourage them to buy more product from the supplier online. Amazon hasn't made such an announcement - we're using its name solely for illustrative purposes - but this is the great concept of the giveaway PC or, as now seems more likely, the freebie appliance.

With a product model, once Amazon ships the box, that's it, it's fixed, unless the user explicitly downloads and installs an update. If Amazon adds a new feature, it can only do so via its Web service. The idea behind MAP is that as Amazon changes, so too can the box - the two become fully integrated. The point is, the box becomes part of the service, not simply the mechanism by which the service is delivered.

Equally, the system can be administered as if it were just a PC on a corporate network, allowing ISPs to perform remote diagnostics or install updates (perhaps at night when the appliance isn't otherwise being used).

As we say, this isn't an entirely new approach. Canadian developer Espial has for some time been working on a Java-based system that runs along similar lines, allowing ISPs to integrate the full spectrum of appliances and mobile devices into their own service offerings. Espial's system is more advanced than Be's, providing e-commerce and micropayment facilities and content management tools. And using Java means it runs on anything with a JVM installed.

MAP and Espial are also both inheritors of the role foreseen Marimba's Castanet technology, which started out as an Internet push technology - remember them? - but later morphed into a corporate desktop PC remote admin and management technology.

Still, Be's MAP is a step in the right direction, and acknowledges that there's more to the appliance market than flogging a box with a built-in OS and Web browser.

MAP is due to ship Q1 2001, Be said yesterday. Pricing, says Be, will be customer-specific, based on the number of users and level of services the ISP wants to offer. Again, that shows Be thinking that the real money in the Net appliance market is going to be made off the back of the service providers, not the users of the boxes or the companies that make them. ®

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