Palm plays it safe with wireless

Symbian, Microsoft and even Handspring may make much of the wireless handheld, but Palm will wait and see

Palm Computing believes consumers are not about to start jumping into the mobile Internet any time soon, despite the efforts of wireless network operators, handset makers and handheld computer makers including Palm's own licencees.

The company said today that this is part of the reason it did not attend last week's GSM World Congress, the biggest international mobile event of the year.

Palm lays much of the blame for the primitive state of the wireless Web at the feet of mobile network operators. "We don't believe the networks understand what the consumer actually wants at the moment," said Bill Mackay, Palm country manager for the UK and Ireland. "We all understand... that you can link a mobile phone to a PDA (personal digital assistant), but you're left wondering why you should do it. If the networks want to encourage more data usage, they need to explain to consumers why they should want to do it."

Palm, which controls the lion's share of the handheld computer market in North America, claims wireless computing is its top priority -- "the single most important thing for us", according to Mackay -- but has little to show.

Two years the company launched an integrated wireless PDA, the Palm VII, on the North American market, but the device does not act as a phone or allow free Web browsing. It has never been launched in Europe.

The only attachments available for giving Palm-branded devices integrated wireless functions are two "sled" attachments for the Palm V series, one from Ubinetics and the other from Realvision, both expected to ship in March. The devices are similar to VisorPhone but don't work with the mid-range Palm III series or the consumer m100.

Compared with the plans of Handspring, Microsoft and Symbian, Palm has been relatively quiet about pushing forward with wireless computing. Mackay said the buoyancy of the PDA has forced Palm to concentrate its resources in that area.

Handspring meanwhile debuted its European VisorPhone at GSM World Congress, claiming the device would change the way people use mobile phones. Microsoft also demonstrated its Stinger smartphone prototype at the conference; both devices are intended for launch by mid-year. Symbian, for its part, will have a new Nokia Communicator PDA-phone on the market by mid-year.

Palm will launch a new version of its OS, including voice capabilities, by mid-year, and is rumoured to be planning an expandable hardware platform for around the same time.

But Palm says it doesn't believe the consumer market is ready for an integrated wireless PDA. "We're not rolling one out at the moment. We don't feel the solution is fully there yet," Mackay said.

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