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An Apple in your kitchen

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"Welcome to Audrey." With those three words, I experienced my first Internet appliance. 3Com's Audrey was meant to deliver lightweight "internet snacking" from a user's kitchen, and offered email and internet access, a calendar and contacts database, plus synchronization of up to two Palm devices. It had a touch-sensitive screen, wireless keyboard and a clear plastic stylus that would glow green when new mail arrived.

Unfortunately for 3Com, the Audrey was launched immediately prior to the dot-com collapse, and was discontinued just seven months into its initial run. I picked one up on eBay a few weeks ago for ten bucks, and it's been fun to play with. I can't help but wonder what would have become of it if 3Com had received user feedback and time to develop a second version. We'll never know, but perhaps the Chumby holds hints.

My experience with the Audrey has got me thinking about the inevitable synergy between computers, household appliances and many of the tools we use every day. For instance, my car told me that one of its tires needed air recently. A friend's refrigerator has been beeping to get her attention since Monday (she's a very patient person).

TiVo has completely changed the way I consume TV shows, as the Apple TV has for others. How many of the shows you watch are "time-shifted?" For me it's at least half. As we said in a recent talkcast, the computer and television will eventually merge into a single device. The process has begun for sure, but I don't think it's complete.

But let's get back to the kitchen. Like many of you, that's where my day begins. Upon waking, the first thing I do is make breakfast for myself and the kids. Then I glance at the calendar on the refrigerator, as well as any flyers, etc. that have been posted there. As the pancakes are sizzling, I'll wander over to the computer to give the morning's email a cursory glance, and maybe hop on Newsvine. Then it's back to the stove to flip the pancakes.

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There are problems with my current system. The first is clutter. The refrigerator is covered with notices from school, flyers, a calendar, notes of all sorts and photos. Also, none of this stuff is shared. Write an appointment on the paper calendar, and my iPhone has no idea what just happened. It just sits there like an idiot.

The second is my pancake batter-encrusted hands. I don't want to be touching a screen, mouse or keyboard with that mess. Also, I've got to be sure that any electronics are kept far away from water, etc., which tends to be everywhere in a hoppin' kitchen.

The fact is, I do want a device of some kind in my kitchen, as it really is my home's communication hub. Who else to build it other than the company that I love? I'm not talking about a tiny netbook, a MacBook Air or even a mini. I'm after a totally new device. Let's call it "iKitchen" for lack of a better term. Here's what I want out of my iKitchen.

  1. An eye-level device. I'm 6 feet tall, and bending over to squint at a screen or type on a keyboard is annoying, since I'm usually standing in the kitchen. Ideally, the iKitchen would hang on the 'fridge. That way, it could replace the paper calendar, flyers from the library and notices from school held in place with ugly magnets. Also, counter space is at a premium in my kitchen, so I don't want another thing taking up space. Especially one that can't get wet.
  2. It must have a touch screen or voice activation, as there's no room for a keyboard or mouse on the 'fridge. I'd like to be able to ask the room, "What's today's weather?", "Today's events" or "Latest emails" (subject/sender only). Mac OS X does have support for speakable items.
  3. Hands-free cooking. The Nintendo DS offers voice-activated recipe navigation with Personal Trainer: Cooking.
  4. Shared calendar that receives push updates from my other devices. MobileMe sync seems perfect here. I can enter an item on my iPhone, Mac or iKitchen and it's pushed to all three.
  5. Email, even if it's read-only. I just want to know what's up as the day begins. If I could do triage from the fridge, like delete unwanted emails and leave the rest -- or maybe flag the super important ones -- that'd be fine. But it's not a deal breaker.
  6. Weather for the day
  7. Music

Another neat trick would be a way to project a recipe onto a wall or other surface. Additionally, imagine flipping through pages with "air gestures," similar to what the folks at Majic Jungle Software are doing with FluidTunes.

Now that we've covered the "Do's," let's look at the "Don'ts." I don't need the "the real Internet." Just simple access to some news sites, weather sites or maybe a sort of MobileMe hub that displays what's going on with all of the iKitchen's registered users.

I don't need movies or television. Sure, it might be fun to watch a morning news show while I'm working, but I'd only glance at it as I did other things. For that reason, support for movies would be a total waste. I'm not going to lean against the sink to watch The Dark Knight.

I don't need tons of apps. No iMovie, iPhoto, etc. Just the simple functionality described above.

So, should, would or could Apple design the iKitchen? Well, they certainly could, so the only questions are should or would they?

For years now, there has been much longing for a tablet computer from Apple. Think of a touch-screen machine about the size of a 15" MacBook Pro display, but a little thicker. Give it this basic functionality and wall-mounting hardware and you'd have something worth considering. Since it would lack an optical drive, hard drive (flash, anyone?) as well as a lot of software, it could be relatively inexpensive. The Audrey sold for $499US.

What would be very awesome is if the iKitchen could be removed from its mount and paired with a wireless keyboard and mouse, or stream iTunes elsewhere. Maybe then it would be better to call it the iHome?

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
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