3Com's Audrey - no place like home

The connected home, that is. 3Com takes a different tack from other Internet appliances by going after early adopters with its new Audrey device

3Com joined the growing list of companies exploring the Internet appliance market when it launched the first device in its Ergo line of products on Tuesday. The $499 (£345) Audrey Internet Appliance takes aim at a segment of the market that other competitors, such as Netpliance, Compaq Computer, eMachines, and the newly minted S3 spin-off Frontpath, have been ignoring: the connected household.

See Audrey here.

Consumers and non-PC owners have been the focus of the nascent Internet appliance market up to this point.

Gateway and America Online are teaming on two upcoming devices, but details, beyond their Web tablet and terminal cases, have not been released by the companies.

3Com Internet Appliance Division vice president and general manager Don Fotsch defined the connected household as families that already have Internet access and productivity tools such as devices from Palm. It's those types of users who tend to want to break through a new category.

Audrey is a trapezoid-shaped Web tablet that comes with an 8in touch screen. The device will be powered by National Semiconductor's Geode GX1 chip, which is optimised for multimedia technology with integrated graphics, audio, memory control, and PCI interface.

In fact, Audrey is based on National Semiconductor's WebPAD (personal access device) reference platform, which, according to National Semiconductor marketing director Camillo Martino, has been customised to meet their target audience. Martino cited the user interface as the area that has most been changed to make the device more consumer friendly.

The WebPAD design has been available for about 18 months and has agreements from the likes of Vestel, Ericsson, ProView, ViewSonic, and eMachines to produce devices based on the design.

Martino said users can expect to see MSN Companion devices based on the WebPAD design in the near future.

Audrey uses the QNX OS and Palm's HotSync technology, allowing, for example, two family members to synchronise schedules from their separate Palm devices into a master calendar. Palm is a 3Com spinoff.

The device can work with multiple Internet service providers but AT&T's WorldNet Service is the preferred ISP. Audrey comes with an integrated 56Kbps modem, wireless keyboard, and an Ethernet adapter for cable or DSL access. Audrey also comes in five colours -- ocean, meadow, sunshine, linen, and slate.

Fotsch said the device is intended to remove the complexity of gathering information from the Web. To do so, the unit comes with a knob that -- TV-style -- allows users to select preprogrammed Web sites, including news, weather, the family calendar, and customized Web sites.

Basic channels will come from ABCNews.com, AccuWeather.com, ESPN.com, CBS MarketWatch.com, and Mr.Showbiz. And for customisation, users may choose up to six other channels. 3Com's approach to the Internet appliance market differs from its competitors by targeting connected users rather than consumers. This may be a significant advantage for the new kid on the block.

The Internet appliance market has failed to live up to its past hype because no clear business models have been successful as yet. But recent activity among PC manufacturers looking to complement revenue from PC sales, such as Compaq and eMachines, and companies looking to remake themselves, such as former graphics company turned new media company S3, are starting to drum up more interest.

The entire appliance market, which includes handhelds, set-top boxes, gaming consoles, and Web terminals, has the potential to grow to a $17.8bn or 89m unit market by 2004, according to IDC's Internet appliance analyst Bryan Ma.

The weakest segment of the appliance market is Web terminals, sealed boxes with no local storage, which Audrey falls under. Ma projects that they will only make up 5.5m of the appliances sold by 2004.

The other appliances complement the activities that consumers already use with Internet access. Terminals simply provide Internet access, which can be done through a PC.

"Others have been going after the non-PC user but 3Com's advantage is that they are going after it from a different angle," said Ma. "This group better understands what these devices are meant for and why they would want one."

Ma added that other advantages for Audrey include the non-subsidised, upfront pricing.

"It's clear where the revenue is coming from," said Ma.

To have your say online click on the TalkBack button and go to the ZDNet News forum.

Kitchen computing is what 3Com hopes people will be doing a lot of. Everyone knows that the kitchen is the nerve center in most households. Bill Machrone thinks that up until now it's been an unfriendly environment for most computing technologies. Now meet Audrey... Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

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