HERE'S A TRUE story: Last year, my father-in-law started grilling me about the Internet. He had never used a computer before and wasn't particularly technologically inclined. But someone had mentioned the eBay auction site one too many times, and now he wanted to know more about "this Web thing."
My life flashed before my eyes. I saw myself spending much of the rest of it providing tech support. If I didn't find some easy way to get him online, he would jump into the deep end and buy a computer. What he really needed was something as simple as a home appliance - a home Internet appliance.
Well, someone must have been listening, because a whole new generation of devices - ironically known as home Internet appliances - cater to that demand, packing Internet access into a counter-top-friendly package without the high-maintenance issues of a full-blown PC.
Some, such as Compaq's iPAQ IA-1, are designed to pull Internet novices into the World Wide Web. Others, including 3Com's new Audrey, are targeted at those already living the "Web lifestyle."
While both gadgets certainly simplify getting online, the question is whether that convenience is enough to overcome their limitations - and the rapidly dropping price of full-fledged PCs.
Compaq's IA-1 is one of the least expensive routes to getting Grandpa and Grandma online - at least up front. The unit is designed to work specifically with Microsoft's MSN online service, and it's marketed with some aggressive rebate programs. Signing up for 3 years of MSN (at $21.95 a month) gets you a $400 instant rebate from Microsoft, while Compaq throws in another $100 in rebates that effectively brings the price of the IA-1 down to $99.
Of course, at $21.95 a month, MSN isn't the cheapest online service. And in some areas, getting connected to MSN may mean long waits for a free circuit on a local access number - or even a long-distance call. In Baltimore, though, I got online on the first try even during peak browsing hours in the early afternoon and late evening.
The IA-1 would be right at home in Grandma's kitchen. Folded up, it's a bit smaller than a phone book - 8 inches deep by 10 inches wide, and 4 inches high. It has a built-in, 10-inch tilting backlit display similar to a laptop computer's. Inside, the IA-1 has 32 megabytes of RAM, plus 16 megabytes of flash memory for the software that runs it.
The device is equipped with a foot-wide wireless keyboard. There's no mouse to hook up - a fingertip-operated pointing device and two "mouse buttons" built into the keyboard handle navigation, along with a variety of shortcut keys that provide one-touch access to MSN services and Web sites. I found the pointing device awkward and less than intuitive. Fortunately, there's an alternative - you can plug in a USB mouse.
Compaq's other home Internet appliance, the IA-2, is slightly larger - about the size of a small television, since it's built around a 15-inch color monitor with a standard picture tube. It only has two USB ports, but is otherwise identical to the IA-1. Once you plug it in, it powers up and walks you through a brief setup program. The setup is partially a tutorial on how to use the device; it also teaches the basics of navigating the Web.
MSN Companion is fairly simple - it looks and works like a simple Web browser, including mail and chat features. That's because mail and chat essentially are Web pages. As a result, Companion's mail client can read e-mail attachments including graphics, HTML coding, and even Microsoft Word documents. It can also play back streaming media files with a built-in Windows Media Player - as long as they're in the Windows Media or MP3 audio format.
The Compaq's limitations are those of almost all Internet appliances. First, you can't upload anything yet - digital photos, audio, or video. That presents a problem for budding eBay vendors and proud grandparents who want to share their digitized snapshots. On a more practical side, MSN Companion doesn't support Java applets, or Real audio and video streams - though it does support Macromedia Flash and Shockwave programming.
However, Compaq promises to change at least some of this over time: Since the software on its Internet appliances is stored on reconfigurable Flash memory chips, it can be automatically updated by Compaq via the MSN service.
On the whole, I found the IA-1 to be a good, basic way to get beginners online without a lot of the hassle associated with computers. And if you don't have a problem staying committed to Microsoft for the next three years, it's a pretty inexpensive way, too. While it may not be completely Luddite-proof, it's certainly easier to learn than a PC.
3Com's Audrey is a completely different beast. While Audrey has some of the same basic features as the Compaq appliances, it's designed for a whole other class of user. It might still work well to get Grandma online, but 3Com is marketing it to a much more Internet-savvy audience. The company is marketing Audrey as an Internet-enabled electronic family organizer.
Audrey is the first in 3Com's Ergo line of Internet appliances. 3Com, which recently spun off its Palm Computing handheld computer operation, obviously didn't spin off a lot of what it learned from the handheld device; Audrey is in many ways like an overgrown Palm device, with a built-in appointment calendar and address book. In fact, it can be synchronized with a Palm through one of its USB ports.
From a design standpoint, Audrey is all attitude and style. It comes in five different Martha Stewart-reminiscent colors (linen white, sunshine yellow, meadow green, ocean blue and slate). Its shape is right out of the Jetsons. Audrey can stand on a counter with its kickstand-style rear leg or hang on the wall with an optional mounting bracket.
Like the Palm, Audrey uses a pen-like stylus instead of a mouse. You tap on the screen with the stylus to choose Web links, open e-mail, or select boxes to enter text. You also can write or draw "scribble" notes and messages with the stylus - these are saved as graphics files, and sent in e-mails as GIF graphics files, so anyone can view them with a Web browser. (You can also send audio messages - Audrey's microphone records sound bites and attaches them to e-mail as Windows WAV audio files.)
Unlike the Compaq appliances, Audrey doesn't come configured. When you first plug it in, you can have it sign up with one of several national Internet service providers or use an existing Internet account. If you have broadband Internet service - a cable modem or DSL - you can plug Audrey into that with an Ethernet adapter that connects to one of the appliance's two USB ports. In a household that already has a computer, that means you can share your existing Internet connection.
The Audrey also comes with a small, wireless keyboard. Considering how much thought was put into the rest of the design, the keyboard is a disappointment - the typing surface is only 9 inches across, and feels a bit cheesy under the fingers. It's likely that Audrey's designers thought that the keyboard wouldn't be used that often; it certainly doesn't offer any incentive to do so.
Audrey's flexibility comes at the cost of a more complicated and longer setup than Compaq's products required. Still, getting online with Audrey is a fairly quick process - the setup program runs once the power plug is connected and walks you through configuration.
In addition to its datebook and address book software, Audrey has a Web browser and e-mail client. All of these functions are available at a touch of one of the buttons on the face of the appliance.
One of Audrey's unusual features is its Channel Selector, a large round knob centered under the bottom of the display. Audrey comes configured to download and store a set of preset Web "channels," including news, financial, sports, weather and retail Web sites. Rotating the knob displays a menu of these channels.
Despite its advanced features, there are some surprising limitations to the kinds of e-mail Audrey can read. It doesn't display messages sent in HTML (the language of Web browsers), and the types of e-mail attachments that Audrey can handle are very limited.
If you want to view attached documents or graphis, you'll you'll have to use a Web-based e-mail service or look at your mail on a PC. And while Audrey has a built-in Real G2 player for listening to voice clips or or streaming audio, it doesn't support streaming video or MP3 music files.
Audrey's biggest drawback may be its price tag. At $549, it's not much cheaper than some low-cost PCs. And since the device is intended more for families that already have PCs than for Internet novices, this may be a problem.
If convenience and style - or having the latest stock quotes available while you raid the refrigerator - matters more than price, then Audrey is a winner.