Normally I’m a general-purpose computing guy. I like that the computer that runs my TV with MythTV is a general purpose computer that does far more than a Tivo ever would. My main computer is normally on and ready for me to do a thousand things.
But there is value in specialty internet appliances, especially ones that can be very low power and small. But it doesn’t make sense to have a ton of those either.
I propose a generic internet appliance box. It would be based on the same small single-board computers which run linux that you find in the typical home router and many other small network appliances. It would ideally be so useful that it would be sold in vast quantities, either in its generic form or with minor repurposings.
Here’s what would be in level 1 of the box:
- A small, single-board linux computer with low power processor such as the ARM
- Similar RAM and flash to today’s small boxes, enough to run a modest linux.
- WiFi radio, usually to be a client — but presumably adaptable to make access points (in which case you need ethernet ports, so perhaps not.)
- USB port
- Infrared port for remote control or IR keyboard (optionally a USB add-on)
Optional features would include:
- Audio output with low-fi speaker
- Small LCD panel
- DVI output for flat panel display
- 3 or 4 buttons arranged next to the LCD panel
The USB port on the basic unit provides a handy way to configure the box. On a full PC, write a thumb-drive with the needed configuration (in particular WiFi encryption keys) and then move the thumb drive to the unit. Thumb drives can also provide a complete filesystem, software or can contain photo slide shows in the version with the video output. Thumb drives could in fact contain entire applications, so you insert one and it copies the app to the box’s flash to give it a personality.
Here are some useful applications:
- In many towns, you can see when a bus or train will arrive at your stop over the internet. Program the appliance with your stop and how long it takes to walk there after a warning. Press a button when you want to leave, and the box announces over the speaker a countdown of when to go to meet the transit perfectly.
- Email notifier
- MP3 output to stereo or digital speakers
- File server (USB connect to external drives — may require full ethernet.)
- VOIP phone system speakerphone/ringer/announcer
- Printer server for USB printers
- Household controller interface (X10, thermostat control, etc.)
Slap on the back of cheap flat panel display mounted on the wall, connected with video cable. Now offer a vast array of applications such as:
- Slide show
- Security video (low-res unless there is an mpeg decoder in the box.)
- Weather/News/Traffic updates
- With an infrared keyboard, be a complete terminal to other computer apps and a minimal web browser.
There are many more applications people can dream up. The idea is that one cheap box can do all these things, and since it could be made in serious quantities, it could end up cheaper than the slightly more specialized boxes, which themselves retail for well under $50 today. Indeed today’s USB printer servers turn out to be pretty close to this box.
The goal is to get these out and let people dream up the applications.