ERGO AUDREY. Entered into eternal cancellation on Wednesday, March 21, 2001. Much-ballyhooed simplifier of modern everyday life; beloved step-sister of Kerbango, also cancelled; preceded in cancellation by Netpliance's i-opener; survived-so far anyway-by Compaq's iPAQ, Honeywell's WebPAD, and parent 3Com's “core businesses.” In lieu of flowers, the developers request that memorial contributions be made to Nasdaq:COMS.
Depressing isn't it? Coincident with the announcement of its latest quarterly results, 3Com quietly stated that it would “discontinue its consumer Internet Appliance product lines.” In other words, no more Audrey home “nerve center” and no more Kerbango “Internet radio.” Even at a time of such opportunity for the emerging Internet appliance market, the need to satisfy a shaky Wall Street managed to kill off two of the more promising new devices of that genre.
3Com didn't elaborate on its rationale; perhaps initial sales of Audrey were disappointing. Still, five months and four days seems hardly long enough to call any product a failure-at least not in a market poised for a “five-year growth rate of 73%” (words used to launch Audrey on October 17 and attributed to research by analysts at Cahners In-Stat). The award-winning, though much delayed, Kerbango that 3Com spent $80 million to acquire less than eight months ago was not even offered a chance to test its market for one day.
Certainly, one obstacle for such early Internet appliances is certainly price. Whether they promise a simpler way to access e-mail; schedule and address book synchronization; wireless Web access; electronic books; digital music; digital video recording; still image capture; or some combination of features from that list, the price is invariably higher than the general-purpose computers with which they still very much compete.
In a period of free-after-rebate 700MHz PCs, the entry price for Audrey (based on a 200MHz National Geode GX1 processor with 16MB of flash, 32MB of RAM, and the QNX RTOS) was a whopping $499; and it cost $50 more to change the color of the plastic; more still to get a USB Ethernet adapter (for those with broadband connections). All that to accomplish a set of tasks any dunderhead could configure a four-year-old Pentium-90 system to do: e-mail, Web browsing, and synchronization of a PDA with an address book and calendar.
Sure Audrey was more compact than a PC (not much larger than its 6-in. by 4-in. color touch screen, for those who haven't seen one). She was also far easier to use and maintain. But a PC can also play games, offers word processing and personal finance software, and oh so much more. It's hard to compete.If individual Internet appliances are to succeed, and I believe many will, they need to find niches that aren't being filled well right now. And they need to fill them at attractive prices. Check out Kodak's new mc3 (www.kodak.com/US/en/digital/cameras/mc3/) for a perfect example.
At Audrey's launch last October, 3Com asserted that its Internet appliance product line would offer “the best of the Internet in a convenient and intuitive way.” They forgot to add, “for a limited time only.” That's too bad. Audrey and Kerbango will both be missed; we hardly knew them.