An information appliance can be any portable computing device capable of transferring data to or from another device. It usually performs multiple specialized tasks, such as the calendar, notepad and phone book functions of a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). The core of an information device is usually an embedded system rather than a complete laptop or desktop motherboard. Information appliances are used by people from all walks of life as telephones, notepads and mobile web browsers. They are also used by transportation and warehouse workers to track package contents and deliveries.
Internet access is not required for a device to be considered an information appliance, but it is frequently a feature. More important is the ability to transfer data to and from the appliance over some sort of connection. It can utilize a wired Ethernet port or Universal Serial Bus (USB) link for this. It may also include wireless network capability, either directly to the Internet or to a local area network (LAN).
The main function of an information appliance is usually to retrieve and manipulate data, for either business or consumer purposes. To do this, it must include some means of input and display for its user, usually more limited than that of a laptop computer. Depending upon the intended use of the device, it may have a specialized keyboard and display. Some units include a touch screen and stylus for data entry. These appliances may be able to read handwriting as well.
Jef Raskin of Apple® Computer, Inc. is thought to have coined the term information appliance around 1979. At the time, it usually referred to an easy-to-use single-function device such as an electronic typewriter with built-in memory. If they had existed in the early 1980s, digital audio players, video players and e-book readers would have been considered information appliances as well. Over time, the term has evolved to imply something very different. A modern information appliance is generally considered to be a multiple-function device that has the ability to communicate with other devices.
The original information appliance definition by Jef Raskin also stipulated that all software and hardware in such an appliance should be developed around open standards. At least one of the very early appliances was completely open but didn't survive for market reasons. Most of the early products failed because they either weren't unique enough or were ahead of their time.