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Handspring to drop Treo price, add GPRS

Several new deals around Handspring's Treo communicator will lower prices for UK consumers, add always-on Internet connectivity and give access to corporate email

Handspring is readying several marketing and technology deals for upcoming Treo communicator, which will pave the way for lower prices for UK consumers, access to corporate email and always-on Internet access.

The company, which makes the Visor line of handheld computers, announced Treo on Monday ahead of a launch early next year. Treo is the successor to VisorPhone, which added mobile phone capabilities to a handheld, but Handspring says it will push much harder to make Treo a success.

One sticking point for VisorPhone in the UK has been price: it sells for hundreds of pounds in Britain, while US consumers have the option of getting one free with a mobile phone service contract. That situation could change with the arrival of Treo, as Handspring is pushing to introduce the communicator into the mobile phone retail channel.

"Our focus on Treo is infinitely bigger than with VisorPhone," said Eric Tholome, Handspring product line manager for Europe. "It was a great first step, but we didn't push it through to get operators' approval. Treo is a major new product line. We're talking to all of (the mobile phone operators)... in the UK in particular."

Tholome said an operator deal in the UK is "just a matter of time".

In the US, Handspring acts as an agent for network operators, bundling their services with its hardware, but does not handle Europe in the same way because of the more fragmented market, Tholome said.

Handspring is also working on software that will allow Treo to connect to operators' GPRS (general packet radio service) networks, which would mean a constant connection to the Internet. At the moment, GPRS has technically been launched by several operators around Europe -- notably mm02, formerly BT Cellnet -- but Handspring says it simply isn't ready. "We see GPRS as not stable enough," Tholome said. "We'd prefer to wait a few more months and be sure we're ready and everything's tested properly."

The main problem is interoperability between different GPRS networks, he said. Mm02 launched the BlackBerry wireless PDA earlier this year on its GPRS system, but it would be difficult to make such a device compatible with any European network. "If you want to do something like (BlackBerry), you would have to go through three or four months of testing with one particular operator and tweak it to work with their equipment. We're trying to release a product to work on any network in any country."

What's more, GPRS would only add marginal benefits to Treo in its current form, by eliminating the need to dial an ISP for Net access. Treo will not be able to maintain constant contact with corporate email, as BlackBerry does, until specialised software is developed.

Handspring says it is working on that angle as well, and on Monday announced a development deal with software maker Visto that will give Treo access to Microsoft Exchange and other corporate email servers. Visto makes mLynx, which allows mobile devices to synchronise with corporate mail.

Visto's software is expected in spring 2002. Handspring did not give a date for when it expects to release its GPRS software stack.

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