AOL readying free Net access device

National Semiconductor, which today announced a new chip for computing appliances, is aiming to be the supplier of choice for appliance makers jumping into the "free PC" fray.

For example, the company, which unveiled the Geode SC1400 integrated processor, is working with America Online to develop an access appliance for the company's online service.

"It's a given that a huge part of the market, if not all of the market, is going to move towards this subsidised model," said Mike Polacek, vice president of National Semi's Internet Appliance Division in Santa Clara, California. "We're going more and more in that direction."

AOL is "working with National Semiconductor on an appliance device based on Geode for access," said Polacek. The AOL device will likely be designed for sending e-mail and browsing the Web. It will likely be distributed at little or no cost to customers who sign up for AOL's online service.

National Semi is also working with Acer Group to supply processors for a number of devices that fall into the "XC" category. XC, or X computer, is a term coined by Acer for a wide range of targeted-purpose computers and appliances for consumers.

Besides the associations with AOL and Acer, National is working with a number of large consumer companies on appliance devices that will, for example, enable e-commerce, Polacek said. All of the devices will be easy to use and targeted in purpose, he said. "We've got products now in development that boot in literally 5 seconds," Polacek added.

All of them will be made possible by Geode, National Semi's so-called "PC-on-a-chip." The first one, the Geode SC1400, will be used with set-top boxes. It is sampling now and will ship later this year or early in 2000. National also expects to see the new chip -- or future versions of it -- in products ranging from Windows terminals to portable PADs (personal access devices).

Three kinds of PADs will emerge, Polacek said: a CRT-based PAD, similar to Apple Computer's iMac; a kitchen PAD that is connected to a wall for e-mail and Web browsing; and a portable PAD, with wireless communication. Over time, "We're going to be getting this thing down to one chip for thin clients and PADs," he said.

National estimates the combined market for PADs, including PCs and appliances, will grow to between 3 billion and 4 billion units over the next few years, Polacek said.

The Geode SC1400 chip is based on National's Media GX processor core and integrates a number of features, such as TV input and output and MPEG 2 decompression. Customers placing large orders for the chip will be able to customise it. For example, a customer could supply National with its own wireless networking technology to be built into the chip.

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