Anatomy of a failure: $199 iToaster

Microworkz had a great idea -- a cheap and easy way to access the Internet. But building it was another matter.

Back in June, I wrote a story about a very small company that was about to shock the computer industry by introducing a $199 home PC. The company was Microworkz, located in a Seattle suburb. The company had named its brainchild the "iToaster."

First of all, you'll notice I used the past tense in the above paragraph when I mentioned Microworkz. That's because it seemingly closed its doors, quite abruptly, in the past few weeks. After a series of articles here on MSNBC.com (about the company and its president, Rick Latman), plus a whole lot of complaints from customers (upset about never receiving paid-for computers), the state of Washington took notice and filed suit against Microworkz.

But, this is a column about the company's final announced product. The $199 iToaster. The "i" stood for Internet, as in access, and that's what Microworkz wanted to make easy for its customers. The Internet was supposed to be accessible through Microworkz's own "free" Internet dial-up service. The service was "free" when you bought an iToaster. I believe the last time I looked at the company's Web sites, the iToaster and a year's "free" Internet access was selling for something like $229 or $249.

The sites went offline a few weeks ago, signaling what I thought was the end of the company. But the "microworkz.com" site mysteriously reappeared this morning, asking everyone to "Stay tuned for a special announcement on December 22, 1999.". The "myitoaster.com" site is also back on-line, sporting just an icon.

The hardware
I'm not sure whether Microworkz actually sold any to the public, but I did receive a test "iToaster" a few weeks ago. It's enclosed in a tan colored box, with connections for a keyboard and mouse, a printer, a phone line, stereo speakers and a monitor. That was it! There was a floppy disk drive installed, but a photocopied sheet informed me that it didn't work. Microworkz hoped to be able to make it work in an upcoming "downloadable" software upgrade. The instruction book tells about a USB port (for a digital camera) built into the "iToaster Plus." Latman told me he'd be shipping me a "Plus" (in a new "black" enclosure) in a few weeks. We'll see.

My beige iToaster was made to sit on a tabletop. The box reminds me a lot of first-generation Power Macintoshes (61xx-81xx series). It measured 12.75 by 15 by nearly 3 inches high. I'd estimate that it weighs 5-6 pounds. You could rest a monitor on top of it. Inside, a Cyrix M-II 333MHz brain, with 32MB of memory muscle, and a 3.2GB hard drive. Pretty much what you'd expect to be inside a computer that sells for under 200 bucks. Please note: This is a real computer, not an Internet appliance like Netpliance's new "i-opener."

There is an on-off button on the front. You use it to turn the thing on and - what is usually a function of an operating system - off. That operating system was the secret to the iToaster. It ran the BeOS. Microworkz's idea was to turn off all the operating system's software controls and options and make using this computer a "no-brainer". Plug it in, turn it on, compute. That's exactly what they did.

When you press the "on-off" button, the iToaster comes to life. Within 25 seconds or so you're looking at the iToaster's home page, a graphical representation of 20 destination buttons. Most took you to some pre-selected destination on the Internet; some took you to BeOS applications (office suite, MP3 player and games) loaded onto the hard drive.

Because Microworkz didn't want anyone fiddling with the settings, a lot of the set-in-stone Web destinations don't exist at this time. When I tried Thursday, I was no longer allowed to dial into their ISP service. Luckily, (despite what it says in the manual) I was able to add other modem settings. So, I'm now able to dial into the modem servers at my home ADSL provider, RedConnect. The iToaster's built-in V90 modem provides me with rock-solid 46.666K connections to the Web.

Red Connect's Internet connection seemed a whole lot faster than I remember Microworkz's as being. As a matter of fact, after using someone else's connection, I believe the iToaster's speed to be quite acceptable for browsing the Web. The Web browser software did a very good job reproducing some difficult sites (feature-laden ones, including MSNBC's home page). Overall, I can't say enough about the look and feel of the BeOS. Easy to use, intuitive and very nifty. Quite a nice feature for a bargain basement computer.

Haphazard construction
I'd like to say my iToaster was well built. But I can't. Construction seems haphazard. The connections on the back are ill-fitting. The power connection pops out from the back of the enclosure. But, I have to admit that when I handled everything very carefully, and double-checked all my connections, I had no problems whatsoever. Nearly everything on the iToaster did work as advertised. Except for the MP3 player. It never actually played the music files I downloaded. Don't forget though, I had a very early sample to test.

Unfortunately, I don't have enough time (or patience) to figure out how to change the hidden software settings on the iToaster. I'd like to be able to replace the URLs for Web sites that don't support the iToaster ("microworkz.com" and "myitoaster.com"). For example, the iToaster's e-mail function was Web-based. And, as of this writing, those Web sites are pretty bare. If you know the secret of changing these hidden settings, please let me know. The iToaster is still quite usable, with or without Microworkz.

If you've read this far, you might be wondering whey I even bothered writing about a computer project from a questionable company, that very few people knew about, and never really got off the ground.

That's because it was a great idea. The iToaster was (and still is) an enjoyable home computing experience. $199 computers are something that should catch on. And computers based on Be's operating system are something that should catch on. Too bad. Together they coulda been a contender.

Let's see what the Dec. 22 announcement is all about. Maybe we'll be getting an early Christmas present.