3Com lets Audrey out the door

The Internet-surfing appliance, which features an 8-inch touch screen, is making its debut online and on the shelves of stores including Bloomingdale's.

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3Com lifted the curtain Tuesday on Audrey, a countertop appliance designed to give gadget-happy families a quick way to surf the Web and shoot off email.

As previously reported by CNET News.com, the Net appliance with an 8-inch touch screen is the first in a family of such devices that 3Com dubs Ergo.

The $499 Net appliance offers email access, a calendar, an address book, and a knob for dialing among several preset Web sites. Among the preloaded sites are ABCNews.com, AccuWeather.com, ESPN.com, CBS MarketWatch.com for financial news and Mr. Showbiz for entertainment.

Audrey uses the QNX operating system, mixed with elements of the Palm operating system, allowing the device to sync directly to up to two Palm or Handspring handhelds.

"One way to think of this is the Palm of the home," said Julie Shimer, vice president of 3Com's consumer business. "We want to deliver an enjoyable Internet experience in the nerve center of the home. In most homes, that's the kitchen."

Although Audrey can go in a living room, it is designed with the kitchen in mind. The unit, which comes in colors like linen and sunshine, is somewhat spill-resistant. Its outer case has a finish that can be cleaned with a sponge, although the green, scrubby side should probably be avoided. The touch screen, however, should be cleaned with products aimed at computers.

Analysts praised some of Audrey's innovations but questioned the high price tag.

"They've got the right idea," said Bryan Ma, an analyst with market researcher IDC. "They're going after the early adopters, and it's more than just Web browsing."

However, Dataquest analyst Martin Reynolds said Monday that current Internet appliances cost as much as a cheap PC without offering a compelling reason to buy them.

"The kind of things we're seeing just don't do it yet," he said.

Audrey had several cameos before Tuesday's launch, including a brief, inadvertent appearance on 3Com's Web site. Audrey was originally due out last month, but its arrival was delayed shortly before a planned launch.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based 3Com isn't alone in its efforts to launch Net appliances. Microsoft has its MSN-based Web Companions. America Online and Gateway plan to ship a kitchen countertop unit this year. And Netpliance, Honeywell and others have their own versions of a Web-browsing device.

3Com said Audrey Feeling savvy? See CNET Tech Trends customers can keep their existing Internet service providers and email addresses, or they can set up an account with AT&T WorldNet service.

Audrey is aimed at people who are quick to scoop up the latest technology and who probably already have their own Internet access.

"It would be a barrier to entry for an Internet appliance to require a year or two or three of Internet service," Shimer said.

Audrey owners can type email using a small, infrared keyboard, scribble a hand-written note directly onto Audrey's screen using a stylus, or record a voice message. The appliance is powered by National Semiconductor's Geode processor and comes with a built-in 56K modem and speakers.

People who have a cable modem or a digital subscriber line can use an Audrey-specific Ethernet adapter to tie into the high-speed connection.

Because Audrey can sync with up to two Palm-based handhelds, Ma said, the unit will initially appeal most to Palm or Handspring owners. Future Ergo appliances may support the use of three or more handhelds, Shimer said.

The unit comes in five colors that would make Martha Stewart proud: slate, ocean, sunshine, meadow and linen.

The product can be ordered online beginning Tuesday and will show up on store shelves later this month.

Retailers include the usual suspects such as Best Buy and CompUSA, Shimer said. In a more unusual twist, Shimer said Bloomingdale's will sell it as well.

"They see this market the way we do: Style matters."