Palm plans updated PDAs and wireless devices

A mid-range colour device and an update to the m505 are on the cards as CeBIT approaches, following Palm's wireless PDA

Palm is planning two new organisers, a colour mid-range device and an improved version of its colour high-end m505, to follow up the long-expected launch of its wireless PDA, according to a source.

The two colour devices are expected to be available in time for the CeBIT electronics trade show, which begins in Hanover, Germany, on 13 March.

One device, possibly called the m130, appears to be aimed at the mid-range of the market, for which Palm now offers the relatively low-cost m125. The upcoming device adds a colour screen, but keeps the same form factor and Universal Connector, allowing it to use the snap-on coloured faceplates designed for other m100-series PDAs. The Universal Connector allows peripherals like keyboards and modems to be used with any newer Palm device.

The other device, possibly called the m515, appears to be an update of the current high-end colour mode, the m505. Its main features are a brighter colour screen and 16MB of RAM, up from 8MB with the m505.

The source, who wished to remain anonymous, provided photographs taken at a Palm briefing during an event in Hamburg earlier this week. One photograph showed a demonstration of an m125-like PDA with a colour screen. Another showed an m505 side-by-side with a similar device with a significantly brighter colour display, although at the same resolution as the m505. The photographs, which appear to be genuine, were later published along with a raft of specifications on the PDA hobbyist site Palm Infocenter.

Palm is also on the point of releasing a wireless data-enabled device, possibly called the m705, which is an update to the venerable VII series. The m705 is expected to be released in the US at the end of this month, following email marketing messages sent to Palm's supporters earlier this month -- something Palm has not done in the past. The European version may have a different name, possibly the m700, according to industry observers.

Palm controls the majority of the world PDA market, with an installed base of 20 million Palm OS-based devices, the company said earlier this week. But Palm's devices, whose selling points are simplicity and ease of use, have faced increasingly stiff competition from rivals like Symbian and Microsoft, which use more complex software and more powerful processors.

"Palm was playing catch-up all of last year in terms of technology," said IDC research analyst Tim Mui. He said that the company has been focussed more on marketing than on its technology, and while this attitude has now changed, Palm devices are still hampered by hardware and software limitations.

Palm is working on a new operating system, Palm OS 5, and plans to sell devices with the new software and more powerful ARM-based processors by this autumn.

"Once they move to ARM, the possibilities of building exciting devices are not so limited," Mui said. He said that despite some advances by Palm OS licensees like Sony and Handspring, "there hasn't been really anything innovative in the Palm OS camp for a few years."

Wireless is considered key to the plans of all handheld makers, and Palm is no exception. The m700-series device is not expected to be enabled to use Bluetooth, a short-range wireless technology, but Palm will offer a long-awaited Bluetooth add-on card in February.

The Bluetooth card could be the ideal wireless solution for many users, allowing the handheld to connect to the Internet via any Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone. An upcoming combination mobile phone-PDA from Handspring, called Treo, also checks email via this method, while Palm's wireless PDA is expected to offer always-on email.

The two upcoming colour devices appear to offer minor improvements to the existing line, and analysts believe Palm -- like other handheld makers -- will wait until after the summer to launch major new products.

One reason is that the general packet radio service (GPRS), high-speed mobile phone network is expected to become more viable over the summer. GPRS, which is likely to reach widespread use in Europe before the US, will give devices like Treo, Palm's wireless device, Microsoft's "Stinger" smartphone, and Symbian smartphones a constant connection to the Internet.

It is unclear how Palm's wireless device will offer always-on email if it is released in the UK this spring. The BlackBerry, from manufactuer Research In Motion and network service provider mm02, uses GPRS, but the network is not currently considered stable enough for mass-market use.

In the US, Palm's device will probably rely on the same two-way pager networks used by the North American version of BlackBerry.

Palm has cleared the inventory problems that plagued it last year, and is finally moving its technology into the 21st century, say analysts, but it faces increased pressure from Microsoft, with its powerful devices, and Symbian, with its wireless partners. "It's going to be a very competitive year for Palm," Mui said.


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