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Palmtop toys in race for business bounty

Mobile phones' prolific penetration and handheld computers hold the keythat unlocks  ecommerce potential worth over $7.29trillion worldwide by 2004.

Mobile phones' prolific penetration and handheld computers hold the key that unlocks  ecommerce potential worth over $7.29 trillion worldwide by 2004.

HANOVER, 3 Mar 2000 (Manila Bulletin) -- ''Tomorrow and beyond'' was telecoms group Ericsson's slogan at the recent CeBIT tech trade, and for many visitors the event was just an electronics Toy Story.

But despite Ericsson's loud echoes of Buzz Lightyear - the hero of Disney's box office hit who aims to go "to infinity and beyond" - the mounting role that electronic gadgets can play in business is raising the stakes, and with it the competition for a slice of a $7 trillion market.

Cellphone makers at the fair continued to play up their mass-market appeal, laying out their wares like gems in a trendy jewellers. But handheld computer players showed they have value to add, and together the two have formidable power.

From now, the race is on to produce a palmtop computer with in-built wirefree Internet links that people can also talk through, and that will work worldwide.

"I think within the next 12 months we'll certainly see that happening," said Peter Richardson, principal analyst at Gartner Group's Dataquest. "At CeBIT next year there'll be a rash of these kinds of devices."

The winners stand to tap a portion of an enormous market in business-to-business ecommerce - estimated by Gartner to be worth over $7.29 trillion worldwide by 2004.

 

THE WAP IS NOT ENOUGH

Despite the hype around mobile Internet access through Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) on mobile phones, analysts say limits on telecoms capacity and the nature of mobile phone use clip the scope for cellphones alone in the Internet age.

But their massmarket penetration - nearly 300 million people have already acquired the cellphone habit globally - is an enticing foundation to build up services through handheld computers, of which around 10 million have been sold so far.

As companies shift more of their business onto electronic networks, they want to maximize efficiency through "alwayson" connections with their workforces by, for instance, letting sales staff input orders on the road.

Some ground can be covered through wire-free links between a handheld computer and a cellphone - here Bluetooth radio technology to link up devices plays a key role - but the ultimate goal is just to have to carry one, light device.

 

HAND-TO-HAND COMBAT

Handheld market leader Palm said at CeBIT it plans to bring out a non-US version of its Palm Pilot VII, which has wireless connectibility for the United States, by the end of the year.

Palm is already loosely cooperating with global handset leader Nokia, on what Dataquest expects will lead to a version of a Palm device that can communicate.

Greg Rhine, vice president of worldwide sales for Palm, said 230 large corporations in the United States have opted for Palmbased systems in this area, and over 30 corporate users were exclusively based on Palm technology.

But while Palm can already claim a 70 percent share of its market worldwide - and Nokia has 27 percent of the much bigger cellphone sales total - big rivals are catching up.

Software giant Microsoft has signed up personal organizer experts Casio and leading PC names Compaq and HewlettPackard to produce gadgets using Microsoft's operating system.

A dazzling array of functions is promised from its "Pocket PC" software, from audio books and downloaded music to dictation and extensive Web-site downloads, as well as special short cuts to keep workers on corporate message.

And Symbian, a consortium of cellphone leaders led by British palmtop maker Psion, used CeBIT to show its new upgraded "Quartz" platform, which promises with Bluetooth to combine the functions of a personal organiser with a cellphone -including e-mail, webbrowsing and fax - on a Motorola handset.