The Internet Without The Computer: 1990s Style

We think of the Internet extending to small devices as a modern trend, but it actually is a good example of how everything makes a circle. Today, we want the network to connect to our thermostat and our toaster. But somewhere between the year 1990 and the year 2010, there was a push to make the Internet accessible to the majority of people who didn’t own a computer. The prototypical device, in our mind, was Microsoft’s ill-fated WebTV, but a recent video from [This Does Not Compute] reminded us of another entry in that race: The Audrey from 3COM. Check out the video, below.

Many devices, like the WebTV, wanted to take over your TV set to save on a display. That doesn’t sound bad today, but you have to remember, the typical TV set in those days was not the high-resolution digital monster you have today, so the experience of surfing the Web on one was suboptimal. The Audrey actually had a cute little screen and a compact keyboard.

The 7.5 inch color LCD was state-of-the-art. There were even USB ports, although the keyboard was IR wireless. Don’t forget this needed to be near a phone line because Audrey had to use its 56K modem that was onboard. A “channel knob” let you download selected web pages without having to understand the complexities of the new-fangled Internet.

The box could do e-mail including handwriting on the stylus-driven touch screen and voice attachments. Honestly, for its day, the Audrey was pretty advanced and ran the sophisticated operating system QNX. The browser isn’t very useful these days, though, because the built-in browser no longer supports modern web protocols.

Everything goes in a circle. One of Audrey’s key selling points was as a personal communication hub. We are seeing attempts to storm that market again. Other appliances slaughtered Audrey in the marketplace. However, the whole category was doomed, of course.

We had forgotten the Audrey, but thanks to [This Does Not Compute] we got a pleasant reminder. We love the old retrocomputers. As mentioned, we had to think of the WebTV (later MSN TV). We do, however, miss our Chumby.

18 thoughts on “The Internet Without The Computer: 1990s Style

    1. @dlcarrier said: “Nowadays, the QNX touchscreen device you are most likely to own is your car.”

      Yes, the Canadian-developed QNX RTOS has its roots in the automotive industry and still does today.[1] However today QNX is called BlackBerry QNX [2] which now runs in more than 215 million vehicles. But the BlackBerry QNX name is also a reminder of the days when tens of millions of Blackberry handheld phone/messaging devices ran on a QNX-based operating system called Blackberry 10.[3][4] Of course that was before Blackberry, due to bad management, greed, and a failure to protect its user’s privacy, pretty-much put itself out of business.

      And no, I do not believe competition with Android brought about the demise of Blackberry. I think Blackberry handheld devices would still be around today if (a) they didn’t let their prices skyrocket, and (b) they would maintain end-to-end encryption. To be fair, the lack of end-to-end encryption is as much Blackberry’s fault as it was Big Governments citing “security” and “anti-porn” concerns while forcing Blackberry to open back-doors for them to spy on user traffic. A case in-point is Indonesia, once one of Blackberry’s largest markets. A combination of high prices and Blackberry’s capitulation to Indonesian Government demands to give them access to user’s traffic eventually put Blackberry out of business there.[5][6] That story was repeated in many other markets.

      1. QNX

      2. Blackberry QNX

      3. BlackBerry Limited (Post Research In Motion)

      4. BlackBerry 10

      5. Indonesia presses RIM over its BlackBerry service

      6. Indonesia threatens BlackBerry data cut

    1. Kind of, yes. Though I think the term “netbook” didn’t really exist yet between ca. ’98 and ’03. Netbooks became popular in ’08 or so, the Asus Eee PC running with Win XP comes to my mind.
      More common was “subnotebook” or mini notebook or UMPC or something like that.

  1. I still have 6 Audreys in my closet (bought refurbished over a decade ago, since then collecting dust).
    If someone is interested in tinkering with this good old device, please let me know.

  2. Oh Audrey. We had one at the office. It is an example of a nice industrial design.
    It reminds me my previous life (2001) when I worked on Frontpath HomeGear which was a tablet with Natsemi Geode running Linux and Mozilla and nothing else, with a resistive touchscreen and on screen keyboard. It never shipped and it was probebly 15 years too early.

  3. I ran Opera Webbrowser when I used QNX as a desktop OS.

    I still run Opera as my webbrowser, just by habit, but I lost intrest in QNX.

    The support was an IRC chat, that I always had open, so my kids used to chat in it for fun, my 11y old son got to know a woman in england (software developer) who sent him a tube with plans for RC planes with the mail…

    My son also chatted with someone from QNX headquarter that used to be involved in robotwars, and an Indian Guy (Mritunjai?).

    I think we were 2 QNX users from Sweden in that chat, the rest was mostly QNX employees and developers.

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