Sharp aims Linux-based PDA at UK corporations

The first major Linux-based handheld computer, the Zaurus SL-5500, arrives in the UK next month, but will need more applications to take off, Sharp admits

The major challenge Sharp Electronics will face in introducing its new Linux-based handheld computer is spurring developers to create a large body of applications, the company said on Wednesday. Sharp was kicking off the UK launch of the device, the Zaurus SL-5500, which will be available in European retail outlets from next month.

The Zaurus, launched in the US earlier this month, is the first Linux-based handheld from a major manufacturer. While Linux hasn't yet been adopted in the desktop market on any great scale, Sharp is confident that its open nature will make it a permanent feature of the computing landscape and encourage application development.

Linux software is based on an open-source licence, which means that it can be freely changed and improved by other developers, as long as they in turn make their changes available to other developers.

"As an open platform, it is an evolving operating system, improving, changing and expanding," said Sharp product marketing manager Mark Klein. He said that Linux is particularly suited to enterprise applications because of its networking capabilities, adding that the operating system isn't necessarily the important issue for users. "When people buy a PDA, they don't care which operating system it uses, as long as it does what they need it to do," Klein said. "It's like asking which operating system you prefer for your VCR."

Sharp is aiming the device squarely at the enterprise market, although it is also focusing on games development. The company claims that there are already about 50 applications ready for the Zaurus, besides the information-management tools shipping with the device.

The electronics maker announced the Zaurus late last year and said that it would begin shipping in the first quarter of this year. As previously reported, the device uses Lineo's version of the Linux operating system, is powered by Intel's 206MHz StrongARM processor, has 64MB of memory, and sports CompactFlash and Secure Digital expansion slots. The Zaurus' screen has a resolution of 320 pixels by 240 pixels and supports 16-bit colour. It will sell for £449.99 in the UK.

Another feature that sets the new Zaurus apart from other handhelds is a tiny keyboard that slides out when needed. Zaurus owners can also input data via handwriting-recognition software and an on-screen keyboard.

"I'm not sure enterprise is willing to bet their handheld strategy on Linux, since it has yet to take off on the desktop," IDC analyst Kevin Burden said. "The major advantage of a Linux-based handheld would be the cost savings in the overall price point of the device, and the price of the Zaurus isn't appealing enough to make companies want to choose a Linux device over devices based on the two big OSes in the market (the Palm OS and Microsoft's Pocket PC 2002)."

The Zaurus has features similar to devices based on Pocket PC 2002, some of which can cost up to £100 more than the Zaurus. For example, the Zaurus allows owners to view Microsoft Word and Excel documents and to synchronise contacts and addresses with Outlook. The device connects to a PC via a docking cradle.

Earlier this month Sharp launched a US online service for devices equipped with a GSM/GPRS wireless card. Sharp hopes to launch a comparable European service but has no near-term plans to do so, Klein said. At the moment there are no Zaurus-compatible GSM/GPRS cards for European networks, Klein said.

With the Zaurus SL-5500, Sharp is relaunching the Zaurus brand outside Japan. The company hopes over the next two years to introduce a variety of products, including high-end handhelds that can make phone calls and lower-priced devices aimed at the youth and family market.

Sharp, which has been selling a Zaurus in Japan that uses the company's own operating system, plans to move all its handhelds to Linux.

CNET's Richard Shim contributed to this report.

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