Handspring Launches Combined PDA, Cell Phone

Analysts wonder if device will have appeal beyond technophiles

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 be talking on a cell phone. Last week, Handspring Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., released VisorPhone, a cellular phone that plugs into its Visor PDAs.

Visors are Palm-compatible PDAs that offer two features that Santa Clara, Calif.-based Palm Inc.'s 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 VisorPhone ($299 including activation fee) along with cellular service plans is available only through Handspring's Web site (www.handspring.com).

This isn't the first attempt to merge cellular phones with personal organizers. Last year, Qualcomm Inc. in San Diego released the pdQ, a cell phone fused with a Palm III handheld organizer. But its $799 price tag and bulky size may have deterred all but the hardiest early adopters.

Manageable Size

"[The pdQ] 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.

By contrast, the VisorPhone is 2.4 by 2 by 0.6 in. and weighs 2.9 oz. with a standard battery. That gives the VisorPhone an overall size that, while bigger than most cell phones, is still manageable. Users can talk into the VisorPhone or use its combination headset and microphone. While talking on the VisorPhone, users can also continue to use its other functions, for instance, to create new appointments or write notes.

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 PDAs 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 PDA simplicity, said Mark McGuire, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group Inc.

Big Screen Real Estate

Besides having the basic features of many of today's cell phones - variable rings, silent vibrating ring, a record of all calls made - the VisorPhone's biggest benefits may be its software and its 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 short-messaging service message (SMS). SMS allows text messages of up to 160 characters in length to be sent to either an e-mail address or an SMS-enabled cell phone. Using the Visor to tap out SMS messages is considerably easier than a cell phone keypad.

Although the VisorPhone currently works only when plugged into a Visor, Handspring said it's developing a separate container for the phone to work outside of a Visor.

Initial adopters might include sales representatives, repairmen or overnight-delivery workers, according to Fletcher. With custom applications, a device such as the VisorPhone could replace "the custom-built brick that the FedEx guy carries around," he said.

But beyond the gee-whiz factor 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 [that's] going to keep it an early-adopters kind of product, which is I think exactly what [Handspring's developers] want," said McGuire.

The Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), 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," said McGuire.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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