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3Com hopes 'Audrey' will rekindle Palm magic
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) -- Home networking giant 3Com Corp., whose handheld Palm device brought computing power out of the home office and onto the road, on Tuesday launched a close cousin -- a small table-top Web-browsing appliance named Audrey -- into the kitchen.
Aimed at gadget-loving families and couples who are looking for a fast way to check the Web and send and receive e-mail, the Audrey comes with an 8-inch (20-cm) touch screen, a 60s style channel dial for fast access to pre-installed Web sites, and the ability to exchange data with two Palm or Handspring devices, company officials said.
Priced at $499-$549 depending on the color, the Audrey is being released in time for Christmas and represents 3Com's attempt to replicate the huge success of its Palm handheld computer as it continues to shift away from the business networking market into the consumer sphere, company officials said.
For wired families, Audrey "displaces the old cork message board," Eric Benhamou, chairman and chief executive of 3Com, said in an interview with Reuters.
The market was not immediately impressed -- 3Com's stock closed at $18-1/2, down from $19-11/16 from the previous day.
Nevertheless, for 3Com, whose now independent spin-off Palm Inc. has sold more than 8.7 million Palm handhelds, the Audrey represents another strong push into the consumer space and away from the higher-end business networking markets, where the company has lost financial and technological ground to competitors like Cisco Systems and Nortel Networks.
With many full-fledged PCs selling for less than $1,000, the price for Audrey may appear high, especially compared to other recently introduced Net appliances, such as Netpliance's $299 i-opener, and CidCo's $99 MailStation.
The key difference is that 3Com is positioning the Audrey as a complementary device for the wired-up crowd.
Aimed at early adopters
"This is definitely aimed at the early adopter crowd," said Bryan Ma, an analyst at technology consultancy, IDC.
For instance, users can now synchronize their Palms with Audrey in order to share their daily schedules with other family members.
Audrey also lets users scribble messages onto the touch screen or record voice messages that can be attached to e-mails -- no easy task for computer beginners.
And unlike other Net appliances that force users into a specific Internet service provider, users can keep their own ISP and e-mail addresses.
Underlining 3Com's mass-market intentions, Audrey will be sold in Bloomingdale's department stores, among others.
"Is it radically different from other information appliances? No, but it is a good product," said Abha Garg, an analyst at Gartner Group.
Audrey recalls the popular iMac from Apple Computer with its built-in monitor, chunky chic design, and the choice of five preciously-named colors: slate, linen, ocean, sunshine or meadow (black, white, blue, yellow and green, respectively).
And like the iMac, Benhamou expects more than half of the Audrey's buyers will be women.
The Audrey, the first in a line of info-appliances 3Com has dubbed "Ergo," is not expected to be a quick financial fix for the company, which has struggled over the past two years, although it reported improved results in its most recent quarter.
And consumer interest in information appliances has so far been low. Only about 235,000 of what IDC defines as "Web terminals," which includes devices competing with Audrey, will be sold worldwide by year's end.
IDC predicts that will grow quickly, to 5.5 million Web terminals sold worldwide in 2004. But it will still be a small portion of the overall market for portable and handheld computing devices, which IDC predicts will be 89 million in 2004.
Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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