New devices designed to access the Internet are popping up all over the place. Across America, tiny Net-enabled appliances are hitting the street in the pockets and purses of mobile users; virtual characters and wireless systems are running offices; and a variety of Internet products are taking many aspects of the average home online.

And that's just the beginning - tech companies are in a mad rush to ensure that customers use their products to jump on the Internet any time, anywhere. Here is a brief sampling of some of the many Internet appliances on or about to hit the market.

Pocket PCs
The dominant mantra in Silicon Valley has always been "smaller, faster, smaller, faster, smaller, faster." Designers of pocket PCs hope to eventually provide users with computers so light and tiny that they can be comfortably worn, yet are as powerful as a high-end notebook computer. As an indication of things just around the corner, IBM just introduced a version of its tiny Microdrive hard drive - it's the size of a book of matches and has a billion bytes of storage capacity (enough to store the equivalent of one thousand 200-page novels). IBM hopes to make the Microdrive the hard drive of choice for manufacturers of future handheld devices.

Most Net-enabled handhelds these days are in the form of personal digital assistants (PDAs), such as the Palm series; or smart phones, such as those in the Qualcomm and Motorola product lines. Both PDAs and smart phones use wireless technology to access the Internet. While much can be done with these devices, they have a way to go before they can provide the user with the same functionality as a standard notebook. The following recently released products are examples of how the industry is striving to offer devices that are smaller, yet more powerful than their predecessors:

  • The onHand PC can be worn on the user's wrist like a watch. This device has the same amount of memory as a Palm III, contains a screen about a quarter of the size of a Palm screen, and has an infrared port enabling the user to connect to Outlook and other personal information managers (PIMs).
  • The Qbe (pronounced "cube"), touted as the "world's first personal-computing tablet," is a hybrid of a Palm and a full-featured notebook PC. It can retrieve e-mail and surf the Web; and it comes with a built-in Ethernet, 56k modem, digital camera, and a pair of PC card slots for plugging in wireless modems or global-positioning system receivers. Instead of a keyboard, it has a 13-inch touch-sensitive screen that contains a virtual keyboard, making the Qbe much more portable than the typical notebook. The device can also be voice controlled and comes with speech-recognition software. Even though it's still too big to fit in your pocket, the Qbe represents one of the industry's best efforts to combine notebook functionality with easy portability.

Office Devices
Internet appliances are changing the modern office. The first, most obvious result of these devices is the emerging trend of telecommuting, which allows companies to cut down on office space and employees to reduce travel time. Offices are heading in the direction of being a base for "face time," with fewer employees in the physical office location than ever. The following Internet appliances are examples of products that help create this new office atmosphere:

  • CyberGenie is a virtual receptionist for small offices in the form of a handset that links wirelessly to a PC. The CyberGenie handles incoming calls; hosts conference calls; automatically routes calls to other employees; and alerts users when they've received voice mail, e-mail, or faxes. Users who are out of the office can call CyberGenie to retrieve e-mail and voice messages. This device costs less than the average corporate phone system and eliminates the need to hire a receptionist.
  • Wireless Ethernet systems offer cordless means to exploit the bandwidth of a DSL (digital subscriber line) or cable-modem connection with a portable notebook. Cards installed in the notebook transform it into a radio transmitter and receiver that communicates with a stationary base unit connected to the network. The setup allows employees popping into the office for a day to easily access network and Internet applications and allows for greater mobility around the office.