Palm still handheld king

When it comes to the handheld market, the king of the hill is still Palm

Handspring has generated a lot of buzz around its Visor product and the various modules that can occupy the Springboard expansion slot. A slow time to market for the modules has lessened the excitement but the lower price points have made it a retail hit, according to Gartner eBusiness Group's Research Director Andrea Leon.

Leon said that, despite the efforts of the three companies, Sony's entry into the Palm OS space may slow the growth of Handspring and Palm simply because of its strong brand recognition.

Palm OS developers, though, see the three-pronged PDA approach as a growth opportunity.

"This is great because it gives us three channels from which to grow; the cases may change but the guts stay the same, which is fine by us," said Justin Schmid, product manager for Novatel Wireless.

Novatel's Minstrel V is the modem for Omnisky's wireless service, which can be used currently with the Palm V. By the fall Novatel will also have the Minstrel S, which will be used by Omnisky to support the Handspring Visor for wireless service.

The Novatel and Omnisky announcements were the biggest news for the Handspring Visor platform but communications devices, such as cell phones and WAP browsers should be out by the end of the year.

For Sony, moving into the PDA market is an effort to grow not only into the PDA market but also to grow as a memory supplier with its MemoryStick modules.

Currently, digital cameras are driving the acceptance of the MemoryStick with over 200 licensees.

Sony has not publicly released the name for the PDA, but it will use the MemoryStick for additional memory. The unit is expected to ship with integrated memory as well.

Initials shipments of the Sony PDA will begin in mid-July, which should give Sony enough time to have large volumes produced in time for the end of the year consumer rush.

Sources say that the MemoryStick slot will later evolve into an expansion slot for different modules such as GPS receivers, Bluetooth modules and cameras. Yang would not confirm the rumor, but said, "Sony has never been mired in the present."

Developers believe there would be more complicated issues in manufacturing hardware for the Sony PDA because of the slot's small size.

"The MemoryStick slot is about the size of a stick of gum and we're not sure where we'd put an antenna or a battery, which we have to have because the PDA can't power our modem," said Schmid.

Palm also joined the expansion fray with its own slot for its PDAs, the Secure Digital (SD) Card.

The Palm OS also supports four other types of expansion options, the SD Card, Sony's MemoryStick, Compact Flash, Handspring's Springboard modules and external options for current Palm brand handhelds.

Similar to Sony's MemoryStick, users will be able to use SD Cards in other types of devices, such as digital cameras, MP3 players and electronic books, as well as the Palm device.

"Palm had to come out with an expansion technology and in a sense they were playing catch up. Their competitors were already offering it and they had to give their customers the option for add-on products for multimedia features," said Leon.

Consumers looking for multimedia features are currently a small group but Leon expects that to grow as prices for PDAs come down.

Microsoft product manager Rebecca Thompson said, "Expansion is not new to us, the fact that we're seeing other companies start doing this is a validation of our strategy."

During the Pocket PC launch in April, the platform had 350 partners developing for expansion possibilities and additional software. Thompson added that all Windows developers are potential Pocket PC developers because Pocket PC is a slimmed down version of the Windows OS.

Some of the features that are being added to the Palm devices by developers are features that already exist in Pocket PCs, such as electronic book readers, MP3 players and voice recorders.

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