'

Visor to arm-wrestle Palm in stores

Coming to a retailer near you - the PDA that burst on the scene last autumn, heating up the already torrid mark for handhelds

Handspring's Visor is ready to do a front somersault into US stores. The company, which burst on to the handheld scene last September, is preparing to make its Palm OS-based Visor handhelds available at a select group of US retail stores by the end of the quarter.

The move, which sources say could happen as soon as the end of this month, will give the company added reach.

At the same time, it will offer consumers the ability to -- for the first time -- compare the two Palm OS-based handhelds side-by-side.

Visor, which began shipping last October, is currently available only from Handspring, which takes phone or Web orders for the device.

Handspring officials said Thursday that the company has caught up on its backlog of orders and that it is beefing up technical and customer support in preparation for the move to retail.

Once there, the Visor will go up against Palm's Palm III and Palm V handhelds, which use the same operating system as the Visor.

"It's about time (Visor went to retail)," said Matt Sargent, principal of market research firm Sargent Consulting. "Retail is the true test."

He saw the move as important for Handspring, saying, "Any sort of portable device tends to do better in an environment where (consumers) can actually evaluate the technology (in person)."

In stores, consumers will likely weigh Visor against the Palm III, and Sargent said, Palm Computing should watch out.

"I think (Handspring) is a huge threat," Sargent said. "Palm more or less has a monopoly on the non-Windows CE handhelds (at retail)."

Visor has a similar entry-level price to the Palm III (£90), but its features better allow people to expand the device beyond its personal-information organisation uses.

Springboard ... and foreign expansion

The handheld's Springboard feature, which allows users to plug modules into the back of the device, makes possible the addition of numerous add-on devices -- including one-way pagers and global positioning system devices. Those two add-ons, along with a host of others, are due out soon.

"Thirty dollars or $40 in this market, makes a lot of difference," Sargent said.

While it will reach retail, soon, Handspring won't stop there. The company plans to expand into Europe and Japan in the first half of this year. It will begin offering a Visor tailored to "British" English for the United Kingdom, as well as versions in German and Japanese. Visors for other countries will begin appearing in the second half of the year.

Handspring also plans to bring on a reseller partner to begin selling Visor to corporations. It has not yet targeted the corporate space, where Palm Computing and another licencee, IBM , have seen successes. IBM licenced Palm OS in 1998 for a similar handheld, which it calls WorkPad.

While the Visor will begin its stint in retail soon, Handspring is at work on its next-generation Visor. Details are sketchy, but the company is experimenting with thinner, lighter designs, and colour screens.

The trick will be shaping the design around Springboard, making sure that it is still easily accessible to users.

"There's a way to do that, and that's what we're working on," said Handspring spokesman Allen Bush.

Bush said the company expects games, global positioning systems and multimedia Springboard modules to be the most popular features for the colour Visor. "We'll be on the market at some point with a colour product."

Not a bad idea, since rival Palm Computing will likely announce its first colour device in February or March.

What do you think? Tell the Mailroom. And read what others have said.