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Palm prepares for the wireless world

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(IDG) -- Palm plans to keep pace with wireless technology advancements because pervasive computing could lead the company to turn its handheld devices into everything from cell phones to virtual wallets, a company official said Monday.

Wireless technology will play a key role in Palm's strategy over the next two years, according to Michael Mace, chief competitive officer and vice president of product planing and strategy at Palm. Mace walked reporters through the company's plans over the next few quarters during a news event in San Francisco, California.

During the first half of this year, Palm plans to bolster its product lineup with a series of wireless aids to give users more versatile access to some of their favorite applications, Mace said.

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With the release of Palm's operating system 4.0, users will gain access to built-in mobile phone support, as SMS (Short Message Service) client, audible e-mail notification, increased security, and support for both USB and Bluetooth wireless technologies. Users will be able to use their cell phones as modems and take advantage of the new services, including the ability to write e-mail messages and work with e-mail attachments.

In addition to these services, Palm will introduce a lengthy list of clip-on modems designed for wireless access, Mace said.

In the later half of this year, Palm will take its Bluetooth support one step further. Bluetooth allows for wireless communication between numerous devices over short distances. By the end of this year, using Bluetooth, Palm users will be able to keep their cell phones tucked away in a briefcase, purse, or car trunk and use it as a wireless modem to connect their Palms to the Internet.

Palm also plans support for several additional features in the second half of the year, including add-on thumb keyboards for typing, the ability to conduct electronic transactions, and higher resolution screens. In addition, Palm will up its multimedia functionality to include better support for sounds, graphics, and music, Mace said.

By 2002, Palm will introduce units built on a new chip architecture designed by U.K.-based ARM. Version 5.0 of Palm's OS built on the ARM technology should improve device battery life and attract developers familiar with ARM's platform.

All of these planned moves coincide with Palm's aim to keep its core platform focused on what users need as opposed to loading devices with bells and whistles that appeal to niche segments, Mace said. Palm wants to ensure users have simple, quick access to e-mail no matter where they are and that users can take increasing advantage of the transactional and business-related tools delivered via their handhelds.

Palm charges that competitors such as Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard are trying to make their handheld devices too much like PCs, according to Mace. PC makers have long depended on Moore's Law, finding that advances in processor speed and memory make adding more and more applications to PCs practical.

However, essentials for the handheld market, such as battery life, display quality, and wireless network speeds, tend not to advance at the same rate. For this reason, Palm thinks a trimmed-down approach to its devices will attract users, pushing them away from competitors' units, which typically run out of batteries much quicker and which are significantly more cumbersome than Palm's, Mace said.

"This is Microsoft -- they fund things indefinitely, they will not disappear," Mace said. "It is not like they are terminally stupid and will not figure this out."

Palm is happy to let Microsoft and others build larger, more application-filled devices, in part because it has a small army of licensees dabbling in these spaces.

Palm plans to stick with its lean look and feel, while letting its licensees do the work in niche markets. IBM, Motorola, Nokia, Sony, Handspring, and Kyocera lead a long list of Palm OS adopters who dabble in segments differing from Palm's usual forte. Kyocera began selling a smart phone, for example, on Monday.

"The features people want will vary from person to person," Mace said. "That's why you have licensees. We want to have some challenges to the Palm religion, and the licensees will show the right direction for those challenges."

Palm, in Santa Clara, California, adopted this strategy, in part, because of responses from its users. In one instance, the vendor polled users on their desire to have an MP3 player included with their Palm device. Only 15 percent of those asked said they would want that feature built in. With this in mind, Palm again decided to stick with its bread and butter product for the mass markets and offer MP3 support as an option. Palm refuses to bulk up its OS by adding feature after feature unless enough widespread demand exists. Palm appears happy to let vendors like Sony break the entertainment ground first and see where it leads.



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