Visor maker expects Springboard to jump-start new PDA
September 14, 1999
By D. Ian Hopper
What makes the Handspring Visor special? It's not the OS; that's from the Palm. It's not the screen; that's Palm too. It's not even the cradle; that's Palm as well, with modifications. What makes the Visor so special is its expansion module, dubbed the Springboard. With the Springboard, Visor users will have myriad expansion options, all astonishingly easy to implement.
Unlike the Palm expansion slot, eventually forgotten in the evolution of the Palm design, and the docking port transformed to accommodate modems and keyboard attachments, the Springboard is a central part of the Visor's design. Indeed, Handspring is banking on the Springboard to give the Visor what the Palm lacks: a depth beyond the normal life of a PDA.
To create this Springboard slot, Handspring didn't start very far outside the box. Looking at the connector, the Springboard looks remarkably like the PCMCIA (PC card) slot used in PC laptops. That's no coincidence; the Springboard uses the same 68-pin block as the popular PCMCIA format. According to Handspring Manager of Partner Programs and Business Development Lee Epting, this was an early play to gain developer acceptance.
"When [Handspring co-founder Jeff Hawkins] did the original design, he looked at the PCMCIA cards and Compact Flash, and said, 'If we could use one of these, we could leverage the support it already has,'" Epting said. "People thinking in that board size and layout would be already prepped for that kind of slot."
But the connector is where the Springboard's similarity with PCMCIA ends. PC cards are thin and light, perfect for a laptop but not very malleable. Handspring wanted a slot that could handle different sizes, so Springboard modules can either fit neatly into the Visor's profile or bulge out with an antenna, extra buttons, a separate battery compartment and more.
The Springboard specification allows for bulk, but it also makes sure that the module fits snugly into the slot, and stays in.
The elegance of the Springboard spec is that it's absolutely nothing like a PC expansion device. Anyone who's ever installed a sound card, scanner or modem knows that even at its easiest, it still requires a bit of know-how and a fair amount of time. At its most difficult, it can be a nightmare and all sorts of other problems can resonate out to other peripherals from the new device.
The Springboard doesn't have that problem. The modules never come with a disk or CD-ROM, and there are no drivers to transfer or InstallShield wizard to run. All the software required to use the module is contained on the module itself, and it installs not only automatically, but quickly and with no user interaction. You just slide it in, and there it is. Even better, when you remove it, it's gone.
How does it do it? According to Epting, a setup application gets launched from the module, which gets the Visor interrupt handlers and drivers installed. When it's removed, an uninstaller launches and removes everything. "It cleans up, and puts the device in a pristine state," Epting said.
The module can also leave data on the Visor. But in most situations, data such as music files or saved games will get saved in the module's RAM rather than cluttering up the Visor unit.
Some modules will be vehicles for software, while others will have both software and hardware uses. Software that is too large to reasonably be installed by syncing with the desktop will typically be available in module form. According to Palm Computing veteran Epting, who joined Handspring in January, this is both because of the Springboard's ease of use and the hand-held's limited memory.
"If you look at some of the other devices that have come out, like the RocketBook, there has clearly been a need for people to view content and have an easy way to get that content, and we think the Springboard can provide that," Epting said. "The memory limitations on Palm-type PDAs have limited the kind of content that can be brought to the device. We learned at Palm that the user doesn't want to take up all of their available memory on their basic device in order to bring on a dictionary. But a card, you can just pop it in."
The hardware modules will take a variety of forms, depending on their use. An upcoming one-way pager will be a relatively simple addition, as opposed to a planned MP3 and digital music encoder and decoder from Innogear.
The ambition of these larger modules is bound to raise questions about power management. The average Palm can chew through a set of two AAA batteries in 2-3 weeks, sometimes less. But the Visor should, despite the extra modules, be able to keep the same average.
"Our power management is pretty darn good with this device," Epting said. Handspring is relying on developers accommodating an extra power supply - either an extra battery compartment or a rechargeable battery -- for larger modules.
In order to build Handspring's modules -- which as of now include a modem, memory expansion, backup card and golf game from EA Sports - Handspring has teamed with Smart Modular, a company known mainly for modems and memory devices, to build the parts. Epting confirms that each module will cost from $6 to $8 to build. Faced with the reality that CD-ROMs are frequently manufactured for less than a dollar, Epting is undaunted. "There are some apps that will be more suited to a CD. But as we've learned at Palm, lots of people don't want to install third-party apps on their Palm, because it's cumbersome."
With the realities of manufacturing, Epting predicts that most software modules will retail for $29 to $49. Software available in other mediums for other platforms will likely be available for the same price as a module. Hardware module prices will vary widely depending on features. The Handspring Store on their Web site will carry the partner modules, taking a very active role in their product's future.
Continuing that role, Epting says Handspring will help developers even before the retail channel, even going so far as to make the manufacturing process easier.
"We never anticipated at Palm that there would be all these people who wanted to be hardware expansion," Epting said. "Now we're using the Springboard plastics from our wireline modem for developers. We created four different plastic designs, and let developers use Handspring's molding and tooling. We just let them choose what they can use, or modify. It's a huge win for the developer, because the tooling for those things can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars."
The developers grins won't end there. Astonishingly, the Springboard specification is completely open in the purest sense. The details -- mechanical specs, pinouts, software documentation, sample code and all - will all be published and available for free on Handspring's site. There is no Springboard association, no user fees, and no royalties.
While this would be unheard of to a company like Nintendo, infamous for its royalties paid by game developers, Handsping is not worried about lost revenues. "Our business is selling Visors," Epting proclaims. "We think we can sell an awful lot of those based on all the creative things done by developers. It's not our business to gouge the developer. We're going to reverse the model. Even technical support on the development side is free. I want them to say, 'It's a pleasure doing business with Handspring.'"
Epting would also be willing to spread the love to other hardware companies, saying that Handspring is open to licensing the Springboard slot, too.
Epting has found that working so closely and openly with developers can be both enlightening and mystifying. She says she's heard all kinds of crazy ideas from developers, but that their excitement about the technology is heartening. When asked if the Handspring's built-in microphone, which is reported to work only when a module that uses it is inserted, can somehow be hacked to work independently, Epting is quick with a response.
"Nope, nice try. The microphone is hard-wired directly to the slot. It's just there to leverage modules like voice recorders and cell radios. But you wouldn't believe the kind of questions we get from developers. One wanted to daisy-chain all sorts of modules to each other to get the Visor to do everything."
Looking at the list of modules scheduled for release, the Visor may end up doing quite near everything. Here's the list, from modules that deliver games to GPS to MP3s to an oscilloscope.
Son of Palm - cheaper, faster, expandable
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