SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) - The idea was simple: Build a machine that connects to e-mail, the Web, an electronic calendar and message board. Then sell it for less than a personal computer and market it as an appliance that can sit on a kitchen counter.
Molded into futuristic and flashy boxes smaller than a toaster, they would serve as another gadget for those with computers and a way for technophobes to wade into the Internet without having to figure out what an IP address is or fiddle with DNS settings.
But something's happened on the way to the Next Big Thing in technology: Not many people have bought the idea - or the gadgets.
On Wednesday, 3Com Corp. announced it is discontinuing its Internet appliances, including the Audrey and the planned Kerbango Internet radio. The company said it was refocusing on its core networking equipment business, but will continue to support the Audrey.
``Profitability, if any, would be far into the future,'' said 3Com chief executive Bruce Claflin. ``Wrap that against the backdrop of a declining economy and changes in the industry overall and it became clear this is an investment we could not afford to keep.''
The Audrey, which sold for as much as $549 plus connection charges, was introduced with great fanfare late last year as a solution for busy families who could leave messages, surf the Web and check e-mail from the convenience of the kitchen table.
Like its immediate competitors, Audrey struggled because its maker did not target it for a particular group of users. People familiar with computers were disappointed by its lack of functionality. Novices were intimidated by its menus and dial.
``The Audrey tried to be everything,'' said Bruce Kasrel, a senior analyst with Forrester Research. ``It tried to be a Palm Pilot organizer and a Web surfing device. It was so overly featured, it ceased to be a one-purpose device.''
3Com might have had more success if, for instance, Audrey was a peripheral to Palm handheld organizers, he said. Everyone in a family could then synchronize their handhelds and check for scheduling conflicts.
Audrey, however, could not show a calendar in weekly or monthly mode.
``Ask anyone who has a family how they use calendars, they always have a big master calendar where they write down and see what's going on,'' Kasrel said. ``This product could not even do that.''
Other Internet appliance makers face similar challenges, including Austin-based Netpliance, whose stock is now trading around 40 cents a share. Some large computer makers, including Gateway and Compaq, also sell Internet appliances.
``I don't think anybody is doing all that well with any of these things,'' said Alan Davis, a senior equities analyst at the Red Chip Review.
Netpliance's $299 i-opener, for instance, included a flat-panel screen and a connection to the Internet for a monthly fee. The company stopped marketing its own machines, instead opting to sell through other companies such as AT&T and EarthLink.
The i-opener was targeted at seniors and novices - a tough market that the computer industry has failed to crack. Like 3Com's, the devices also were a tough sale to computer aficionados who rush out to buy the latest gadget.
``If you already have a PC in your house, why do you want to spend money on a device that's going to have limited capabilities?'' Davis said.
Much of the problem is related to the appliances' limited functionality or lack of features.
``The right device hasn't been designed yet,'' Davis said. ``All these companies are throwing designs at the market and seeing what sticks. People don't know even if they want combination devices.''
As companies try to create a new category of devices, other gadget makers are adding the same technology into cell phones, laptops and handheld computers.
Yet Davis and others believe there might be uses that could rescue the devices from sales doldrums. If they are linked to a high-speed connection, they could serve as an Internet phone that bypasses the phone company's network and charges.
Or, with wireless standards emerging, they could link cellphones, pagers, handheld computers and other gadgets.
``The killer application is what's lacking,'' Davis said.