British mobile phone handset maker Sendo said it should be able to begin shipping its first colour-screen GPRS smartphone, the Z100, by the end of March. Sendo is one of the earliest adopters of Microsoft's smartphone software platform, code-named Stinger, and the handset could be the first Stinger phone on the market.
In a briefing on Friday, the company said it now has 16 distribution deals with wireless network operators, and expects to break even by the end of the year.
Sendo said it is now shipping tens of thousands of regular mobile phone hansdets per month to 20 countries, after launching its product range in February. The company sees steady growth ahead, with 3-5m units per month next year, bucking a global slowdown in handset sales.
Sendo has been showing off the Z100 design since this spring, and its early-adopter status has allowed it to benefit from Microsoft's vast publicity machine. The Stinger platform combines mobile phone capabilities with functions of a personal organiser, wireless Web access, email and other advanced features. Microsoft owns a minority stake in Sendo.
The phone will also support Sun Microsystems' Java platform, a new addition to the specification.
Sendo said it is aiming to launch the device in the first quarter, but Sendo's director of communications, Marijke van Hooren, said it is "more likely to be the end of March than the beginning of January". The hitch lies with GPRS (general packet radio service), which promises always-on data connectivity but which must get over teething troubles first.
"GPRS is new, and Stinger is new. We are combining it all, which means extensive testing to make sure it's stable," said van Hooren. "It's more important to get it right than to worry about launching it on 1 January." Sendo has already begun testing the Z100 prototype with carriers.
Some devices, including Nokia's Communicator and BT's BlackBerry, have launched for GPRS networks, but industry analysts say the networks are not yet stable.
Sendo says the same about the short-range radio technology Bluetooth, which may surprise some advocates, since Bluetooth is considered to have reached a level of maturity with the 1.1 release of its specification. But Sendo has decided not to include Bluetooth in the Z100, instead offering it as an optional add-on. "Bluetooth is not as standardised as we would ideally like to see," said van Hooren.
Newer phones from handset leaders such as Nokia and Ericsson feature built-in Bluetooth chips. Bluetooth allows mobile phones, PDAs, PCs, headsets and other devices to connect to one another over a short distance.
The phone weighs 99 grams, making it the smallest and lightest GPRS tri-band smartphone, Sendo claims. It includes USB, IrDA and serial port connectivity, allowing it to link to PCs and other mobile devices, and will accept Multimedia Card (MMC) and Secure Digital (SD) expansion cards.
The phone could tap into a latent market for advanced handsets, according to analysts. The addition of a colour screen helped boost sales of Nokia's 9110 Communicator, and other colour-screen devices are on the way.
Colour will also give the Z100 an edge on other smartphones arriving on the market such as Handspring's Treo, which launches with a black and white screen in January, and won't be available in colour until later in 2002.
Palm and Symbian are also releasing colour smartphones with a similiar form factor to the Z100, but these devices will be months away.
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