Petting zoo

Internet appliances are not pets. Let’s just clear that up right away.

The sad, miserable, and fairly short history of Web-enabled devices features an embarrassing subplot in which many major manufacturers, including Intel and 3Com, thought they could effectively market their products by likening them to other forms of human companionship. Intel’s decision late last week to close down its consumer division suggests that era may be over, which makes this a good time to examine why it didn’t work.

In 3Com’s case, we got the “Audrey,” a box that offered one-touch access to e-mail, pre-selected Internet channels, household calendars and address books, as well as synchronization with Palm handheld devices. As appliances go, it didn’t seem like a bad idea. No, the bad idea was the name, which made it sound like some kind of cyber-maid (or worse) for the connected new economy set. In less than a year, it was gone.

Intel’s mini-organizer, Rex, has a lengthier pedigree. Created by Franklin Electronic publishers, the device was smaller than most handhelds, and came with the advantage of sharing data with both PCs and laptops. It was bought by Xircom two years ago, before Intel bought Xircom earlier this year.

Intel officially discontinued the Rex in August, but so long as the consumer division lived there was always a chance it might have been revived. Probably under a different brand, of course, given the fact that the original Rex was riddled with technical problems that delayed shipments during the all-important Christmas season last year. The technology behind it was compelling enough that other players in this space, like Handspring, were interested in developing a version of Rex that would fit in its expansion slot. Similarly, 3Com’s Audrey allowed users to avoid tying themselves to a specific service provider, potentially creating demand for its ethernet adapters. While Audrey didn’t seem to have any glitches in its design, the US$549 price tag was such that it wasn’t very competitive with many consumer PCs.

Though 3Com cut its losses relatively early, Intel seemed as though it didn’t want to admit it made a mistake in spreading itself into so many unprofitable areas. Other blunders included the Dot.Station, which covered much the same ground as Audrey. The consumer division was axed just before we would have seen the official debut of a Web Tablet, which would have been involved in a futile battle for meager market share with the likes of ViewSonic and Xplore.

There was also little point in Intel wasting its time with digital music players — this is Samsung territory. The only interesting competition here will come from companies with more expertise in trendy design, like Apple, which will reportedly unveil an MP3 device this week.

It’s not so much the imagery of pets (or mistresses) that doomed these new product lines to failure. There just isn’t a really good reason, when PC prices are becoming cheaper than ever before, to invest in a “companion” that offers a selected set of the same capabilities, like surfing e-mail. Pets are great company, but to fill the average home with a plethora of Web appliances is the equivalent of becoming that weird old woman in the downstairs apartment with a dozen cats. Congratulations to 3Com and, belatedly, Intel for getting out of the house and back to the office where they belong.

sschick@plesman.com

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