Handspring launches VisorPhone -- its PDA with a cell phone attached

If the person seated next to you on the bus tomorrow morning starts carrying on a conversation with his personal digital assistant (PDA), don't panic -- he might really be talking on a cell phone.

On Monday, Handspring Inc. in Mountain View. Calif., released VisorPhone, a cellular phone that plugs into the Springboard port on its Visor PDAs.

Visors are Palm-compatible PDAs that contain two things that Palm handhelds don't: a built-in microphone and a Springboard port in the back into which users can plug modules to enhance the device's functionality. The $299 VisorPhone (including activation fee) is currently available only through the Handspring Web site, along with cellular service plans.

This isn't the first attempt to merge cell phones with personal organizers. Last year, San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc. released the pdQ, a cell phone fused with a Palm III handheld organizer. But its $799.99 price tag and bulky size may have deterred all but the hardiest early adopters.

"It tries to graft a PDA into the form factor of a phone, which makes it inconvenient to use for either purpose," said Chris Fletcher, an analyst at Boston-based Aberdeen Group Inc.

In contrast, the VisorPhone measures 2.4 in. long by 2 in. wide and just over a half-inch deep. It weighs 2.9 oz. with its standard battery. The phone fits into the Springboard port on the back of Visors, maintaining an overall form factor that, although bigger than most cell phones, is still manageable.

Users can talk into the Visor or use the included headset/microphone. While talking on the VisorPhone, users can also continue to use the Visor's other functions, to create new appointments or write notes, for instance.

Though there have been a variety of devices for Palms and Visors that enhance functionality, such as digital cameras, backup modules and modems, each new version of the PDA has maintained the basic functionality of an organizer.

"To me, this kind of combination -- adding a voice module that allows me to make voice calls, with software that allows me to do a lot of interesting things -- looks like a logical extension" to the relative simplicity of PDAs, said Mark McGuire, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group Inc.

Besides having the basic features of many of today's cell phones -- such as variable rings or a record of all calls made -- the phone's biggest benefits may be the software and the 160 by 160 pixels of screen real estate, a whopping amount for any cell phone. The software takes full advantage of the larger screen size, allowing users to conquer tasks that are difficult on normal cell phones, such as setting up a conference call or composing a short-messaging-service message.

The device also leverages the existing information a user has in his Visor, so numbers can be dialed by clicking on them in the address book, by highlighting text and pressing the external "dial" button on top of the phone, and through speed dial. While the phone currently only works when plugged into a Visor, Handspring said it's developing a separate container for it to work outside of a Visor.

Initial adopters might include sales force automation users, or repair or overnight delivery people, said Fletcher. With custom applications, a device such as the VisorPhone could replace "the custom-built brick that the FedEx guy carries around," he said.

Beyond the gee-whiz factor, which is sure to attract an initial coterie of PDA geeks and new technology freaks, analysts said, the VisorPhone might remain a niche product for the short term. "It uses the GSM band, and it's cool, but it's going to keep it an early-adopters kind of product, which is, I think, exactly what these guys [at Handspring] want," said McGuire. GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), while common in Europe and Asia, is much less common than Code Division Multiple Access in the U.S.

"A lot of this is a test, finding out where the two kinds of key applications -- voice and data -- will overlap," McGuire says.

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