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3Com Unveils Audrey

Welcome to the 21st century, ladies and gentleman.

What was conjecture only a couple years ago, to have ubiquitous Internet access in every room of the house, is now reality with 3Com's release of revolutionary Internet appliance Audrey.

Measuring 6 1/4 by 4 3/4 inches, the stand-up appliance can be placed anywhere in the house that's in reach of the Internet connection. Connection is through Audrey's 56K modem, although cable and digital subscriber line users can purchase a modified Ethernet adapter.

Ray Winninger, 3Com director of product development for internet appliances, said Audrey wasn't meant to replace the low-end PC, but to supplement the PC.

"We think there may eventually be a market for devices like that but in the early phase, we think the sweet spot is really not a device that replaces the PC, but a device that supplements its capabilities," Winninger said. "So all that wonderful stuff you do on your PC, imagine if you could do a subset of that wonderful stuff in your kitchen.

"We don't see people sitting down with Audrey for an hour or two at a time," Winninger continued. "Instead, we see Audrey used 10 or 15 times for as little as 5 to 10 seconds each time you use it, for quick things like what the weather is going to be like tomorrow."

Navigating through pre-selected Internet content is as easy as turning a dial, located at the bottom of the unit. Internet channels include news from ABCNEWS.com, sports from ESPN.com and stock quotes from CBS MarketWatch.com. More e-commerce sites are planned for inclusion soon.

By far the niftiest feature of the new product is its interface. Users can either use the attached stylus to write a message, record a voice mail message or do it the old-fashioned way using a keyboard. E-mails are sent the same way.

Don Fotsch, 3Com Internet Appliance Division vice president, said the company's goal was to make a product easy enough for the whole family to use.

"The Audrey experience allows consumers to spend less time with technology and more time doing the things they really want to do," Fotsch said. "Our focus is to remove the complexity associated with accessing information on the Internet. Just like flipping a light switch, or turning on the radio, simply turn Audrey's dial and the information is there. Accessing zip code-specific weather, for example, is a virtually instant experience with Audrey."

Joyce Putscher, Cahners In-Stat consumer and convergence group director, said the new product is positioned to capture a good amount of the market that will see a worldwide growth rate of 75 percent in the next five years.

"Audrey is very user friendly, while the dial gives it a 'familiar' feel to a TV or radio," Putscher said. "The note scribbling feature is a super, personalized way of sending or leaving a message, and is as easy as grabbing a piece of paper and writing on it."

It is also compatible with Palm Pilot products like the organizer. Now, updating the family calendar is as easy as uploading and downloading. Also, Audrey can be pre-programmed to grab e-mail and the latest channel content at certain times.

While still pricey, as only new electronics products can be, at $499, the Internet appliance invoice is sure to drop in time for the Christmas shopping season.

But the problem isn't in the pricing, it's getting your hands on Audrey in the first place.

Even though it's easy enough to find and