Comdex: Jupiter devices chase corporate users

Jupiter will be hanging low in the Las Vegas sky at Comdex/Fall '98. The stripped down version of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows CE operating system should be prominently displayed on a whole new class of portables.

The Jupiter devices differ from earlier products that used Win CE. Those were classic clamshell-design portables that aimed to be stripped-down PCs. The Jupiter systems are more application oriented, and take a more business-minded approach.

At least two vendors have already begun shipping Jupiter devices, officially called Handheld PC Professionals. Others will be announcing their systems at the show. The systems, which resemble subnotebooks, or very small notebook computers, differ in several key areas. For one thing, the Jupiter devices are based on non-Intel Corp. RISC processors. For another, they run Windows CE, and not Windows 98 itself.

The shift in hardware and software allows for a far longer battery life than a subnotebook would achieve -- typically around eight to 10 hours. And, at an average starting price of $899 (£550), the systems are also significantly cheaper than high-end sub-notebooks, which can cost about $1,799 (£1,100).

The light, cheap systems are not meant to replace notebooks, but rather perform only a few tasks, such as e-mail, presentations and basic word processing. Speculation is that the first adopters will be people looking for something that will supplement their desktop computers, but will also still give them more input capability (that is, a larger keyboard) than other handhelds.

"You can show a PowerPoint presentation from your Jupiter device, but you can't edit it. You can write documents on Microsoft Word, but you don't have a full thesaurus," said Jill House, an analyst at International Data Corp., in the US.

Where the systems may really take off, however, are in so-called "vertical markets" such as health care or inventory management, where an industry standard machine can replace proprietary technology or old-fashioned paperwork. "It's not going to be like a PC, where everyone has to have one. It will be very good for who it's meant for and what it's supposed to do," House said. "For example, sales force automation, where they need a full screen and they need a keyboard because they're entering data." In the health care sector, the devices could be used to track patient care records and other data for home health aides, said Mark Braunstein, CEO of Patient Care Technologies in Atlanta.

Braunstein's company develops software for home health aides. Previously, the software ran on specially designed machines, or on smaller handheld devices. The new Jupiter class systems "come close to an ideal device," for his customers. "Here for the first time is a device that has all the important attributes of a notebook -- a larger screen, a larger keyboard -- (and) none of the disadvantages," Braunstein said. "It's not heavy, it doesn't have a short battery life, it's not expensive, it's not complicated."

Of course, manufacturers have only begun shipping the devices, and it is still too early to tell how popular they will become. Manufacturers, perhaps the ultimate optimists, see an entire universe of new users. "100 million Americans go to work, but the vast majority don't use computers," said Stephen Wain, vice president and general manager at Sharp Electronics Corp. "This will open up a path to computing for the rest of them."

IDC, meanwhile, predicts sales of only 1 million units or so by 2002.


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