The analogy of the appliance is interesting, as one of the ways the power companies convinced people they needed electricity in their houses is by creating kitchen appliances as labor-saving devices. Some proved their importance (refridgerators killed off iceboxes, and that is a good thing) and some less so (the electric can opener is important for people, such as my mother-in-law, who has had a stroke and can't use both hands to run a normal can opener, but is too lame and frustrating for able, two-handed people to deal with). There have been attempts to create InternetAppliances, such as the IOpener and WebTV?, and in a more general case, InformationAppliance?s such as the TiVo (which is an improvement over the earlier InformationAppliance?, the VideoCassetteRecorder?). To some extent, these appliances have gained ground from the GeneralPurposeComputer?, but that market is still strong, partially because an InternetAppliance or InformationAppliance? is stuck doing one thing, while the GeneralPurposeComputer? can do many things. A toaster toasts, while an oven can toast, bake, boil or fry, so more people have ovens than toasters.
On the "appliance" topic, I have a microwave, a toaster, and a toaster-oven in addition to my big oven. While I use the "burners" on top of the oven, I haven't opened the oven itself since I moved into my apartment. For my audio-visual system I have a (digital) cable box, a plain VCR, and a TiVo digital recorder. I don't have a specialized TV-appliance--I have a TV tuner card for my computer. Occasionally I put up with some hassles when I upgrade my OS and have to find new drivers for my TV card. The extra work is repaid by not having an extra large/heavy/expensive (for S-video input) TV-only box. (Now I have room for a second monitor. :-)
I've considered whether I could replace my Tivo with a current-generation multi-function video card. These cards can do "digital VCR" functions and record video to a computer's hard drive. The Tivo does have several compelling advantages. The Tivo is nearly silent--it is much quieter than my computer's fan or my old VCR's motors. (The Tivo hard disk is the loudest component, but it is only occasionally audible.) It takes absolutely no computing resources from my computer when in use, unlike the software-compression of video-card solutions (which require most of the CPU when in use). My Tivo has crashed only three times in over a year of constant use, unlike my computer which crashes a few times per month. Finally, the software in the Tivo is extremely well-designed and does far more than most primitive VCR-replacements. If I wanted to edit the recorded video, then the computer would be better, but for viewing the Tivo is superior. --CliffordAdams
I guess a key is also the infrastructure necessary, and history. Used to be, the building was built around the fire because everyone needed a fire for cooking, warmth and light; and because if you don't be careful, your stuff burns up. In modern housing, the three have split but the house is still built around them (gas or big electricity to the oven, venting and special lighting from the oven, all the vents and ducts for the furnace, electric lighting system). You have an oven, even if you don't use it, because houses are built around them and refitting the house without that isn't worth the effort. The future of the GeneralPurposeComputer? at home relies on whether the purpose it serves justifies the house being built around it (broadband, electricity and special-purpose furnature) and whether PervasiveComputing (which would buiild the computer into the house, rather than the house around the computer, although I believe the difference will tend to be slight) is successful in replacing it.
I seem to have forgotten to call an InternetAppliance a ThinClient, but that's pretty much what it is, although it'll have to get somewhat fatter the more it is used in relation to the DistributedComputing world. (However, the big monster servers of the early 80s are dwarfed in computing power and storage of the Pentium 90 doorstop you're thinking of putting Linux on as an experiment, so all this is relative.)