Tuesday, 20 October 2020

3Com Audrey (2000)

Introduced October 2000

These days we are glued to our mobile devices, wanting to access the web and applications wherever we are. For many the idea of having to sit and the computer to use the internet seems old-fashioned. Smartphones, tablets… and yes, maybe a laptop if it’s something serious.

Twenty years ago however, the internet was not a mobile experience. Cables, dial-up modems and old-fashioned PCs were the way to go. If you wanted to access the web while you were in – say – the kitchen, you’d be out of luck.

3Com had an idea. One of the stars of the dot com boom, they created a device that could enable you to access the internet from almost any room you wanted. Using cutting-edge technology and undoubtedly with an eye to the future, they introduced the 3Com Ergo Audrey (or just the “3Com Audrey”). 3Com weren’t into consumer computing, except for their Palm subsidiary, so this was a new market for them.

It looks like a dangerous environment but loads of us are working from home in worse

In some ways the Audrey was like a modern tablet – an 8” VGA-resolution touchscreen display was complemented by a compact design, a wireless keyboard and USB expansion ports. The beating heart of the Audrey was the QNX operating system, a Unix-like platform designed to run on small devices. The Audrey could access the web, email, personal information management tools and a variety of push content that could be selected by a rather retro knob. You could sync it with up to two Palm PDAs (back in the days when a Palm Pilot was still a big deal). For added quirkiness, the stylus plugged into the top of the unit and it lit up when you received an email. It sounded great, but there were some drawbacks.

Internet access was via a dial-up modem, although you could plug an Ethernet adapter into a USB port if you had Ethernet at home. Also, you had to power it from a wall socket, so it was tied to both the mains and a phone or network port. At $499 it was quite pricey, and it didn’t have the power of a contemporary laptop. And – probably mostly – people just didn’t have the need to do internet all the time from anywhere.

3Com envisaged the Audrey (named after Audrey Hepburn) as being the lead device in their new “Ergo” sub-brand, including a “Mannix” device for the living room and presumably an “Andrex” device for the toilet. Presumably then you’d need a phone line in every room, which would be a pest. Wireless networking was technically a thing back in 2000, but it wasn’t widespread.

Is the kitchen the natural environment for the Audrey? Or the box it came in?

Still, this was pretty exciting stuff and of course 3Com hadn’t seen the iPad which was still a decade away, so it all sort of made sense. If you hadn’t seen the iPad. Which they hadn’t. Which was a problem really, because in hindsight it was the iPad that consumers really went for, followed by ridiculously oversized smartphones. Consumers wanted a cheese soufflĂ©, 3Com offered them a soggy omelette instead.

It was a moderate success, but the dot com crash sent investors running away from tech shares and 3Com cancelled the Audrey and all the other Ergo devices in the summer of 2001. Some of the unsold inventory ended up in the hands of hackers who discovered how to jailbreak QNX and do their own things with it, turning these remaindered devices into something like a prototype Raspberry Pi.

Twenty years on and the Audrey is largely forgotten, along with 3Com who eventually vanished without trace into HP (along with their one-type subsidiary Palm). QNX was bought by RIM and turned up in the catastrophic BlackBerry Z10 in 2013, but despite that it still successfully soldiers on in embedded systems. As for the Audrey, you can pick one up for a few tens of dollars from sellers in the US but if exporting it you’ll need to watch the voltage on the power supply.

Image credits:
Andrew Turner via Flickr - CC BY 2.0
Alessandra Cimatti via Flickr - CC BY 2.0



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