Without wireless, Sony is missing the boat

The industry is wild about wireless, both in terms of communications and connectivity. With the current CLIÉ design, integrating wireless capabilities will be a chore. If Sony doesn't move fast, the PDA market will evolve without it.

The company that brought the Walkman, the camcorder and other electronic gadgets onto streets and into living rooms and backyards everywhere is now trying its hand at PDAs. Sony's entry into the increasingly crowded PDA market is sure to help further expose these devices to mainstream consumers as the handy tools they've always been. However, given its late start in these waters, you'd think Sony would have plotted the course of its first PDA -- the CLIÉ -- more carefully. That's because, at the moment, the CLIÉ looks like it's facing some rough seas.

Since PDAs have been around for several years now, the novelty of having a digital personal buddy that reminds you that you've got to be somewhere in 15 minutes is starting to wear off. Now, we're starting to see these devices live up to their true potential as platforms for anything from wireless connectivity to MP3 players.

Interestingly, this was the message that Microsoft and its hardware partners were pushing when they jumped into the PDA game with their palm-sized PCs, which are now known as Pocket PCs. But it took them a while to figure out the right mixture of features and size.

The promise of being able to do more with your PDA is what has made Handspring's Visor devices so popular. All Visors have a Springboard slot, which can be used to support anything from a cell phone module to a digital camera module. Unfortunately, the modules, mostly from third-party developers, have yet to ship, leaving many Visor owners with just modules of Star Trek books and memory. The company has said a cell phone module will be available in November.

But just the promise has been enough to allow Handspring to take a big bite out of Palm's market share -- about 25 percent, according to NPD Intelect, a research firm in Port Washington, N.Y. This is where Sony's CLIÉ -- which stands for Communication, Link, Information and Entertainment -- comes up short, at least until the beginning of next year.

The CLIÉ has expansion capabilities like Handspring's Springboard slot. The Memory Stick slot on the back of the Sony unit will be able to support Memory Stick Expansion Modules, but those probably won't see the light of day for a while. And more importantly, developers are saying that building wireless capabilities into something the size of a Memory Stick will be a tremendous challenge. A Memory Stick is about the size of a stick of gum -- and herein lies the CLIÉ's sticking point.

The industry is wild about wireless, both in terms of communications and connectivity. Many are saying that wireless capabilities will be the Second Coming of the Internet, allowing users to take the Net with them wherever they go. Witness Handspring's stock price last week. Before the announcement that it would be releasing the VisorPhone, the Springboard cell phone module, the company's stock was in the low 40s, which is a healthy-enough range. But when news of the module broke, the stock shot up just over 20 points, to put it in the low 60s.

With the current CLIÉ design, integrating wireless capabilities will be a chore. If Sony doesn't move fast, the PDA market will evolve without it. In fact, Sony rivals are already moving ahead with wireless. An OmniSky module for Visors is due out in October and various Microsoft Pocket PC hardware manufacturers, such as Hewlett-Packard and Compaq, are working on similar wireless connectivity peripherals. I've been using an OmniSky modem and service with a Palm Vx for several months now and have found it to be not only practical for looking up flight information, but also fun for checking up on my Giants as they march closer to the playoffs.

So, without wireless capabilities, you're missing out on a large part of the future of these devices. And so is Sony.

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