For those who thought Linux had no chance in mobile devices, Sharp clearly begs to differ. With its latest Zaurus handheld, the SL-C860, Sharp could have a product with legs.
Sharp, along with Casio, owned the PDA space a few years back, but it virtually vanished as a player once Palm and Microsoft entered. Then a little over a year ago, Sharp made a comeback with its Zaurus SL-C760, which ran an embedded version of Linux and had a number of interesting applications. The handheld wasnt particularly reliable, and synchronization was ugly, but the hardware design (with a sharp screen—pun intended—and keyboard implementation that would have made Research in Motion Ltd. jealous) created a very mixed-value proposition.
Now, with the release of the Zaurus 860, we have Sharps next-generation product. The biggest improvement between the 860 and the 760 is the ability for Windows to accept the device as an external drive, facilitating easy data transfer, which has been a serious problem with these products to date. The software load is also looking both more capable and more mature in the 860.
As for physical design, the 860, like the 760, is similar to a very small clamshell tablet computer, which allows it to have a much larger and more usable keyboard while still maintaining a pocket-sized form factor.
From a user standpoint, the clamshell design is more useful for e-mail and messaging than the design of most existing handheld computers because the keyboard is horizontal rather then vertical. This makes the closest competitor to this device the clamshell-shaped Sony Clie UX50.
The Sharp device, to my eye, has a more advanced design, but the Sony has the generally preferred tactile keys and runs the more common (and much more mature on a handheld) Palm OS. The price for the Sharp, only available through dynamism.com in the United States, is $849 (the 760 is $799), while the Sony costs around $650. Both products are clearly at the very high end of the handheld computer market (considering you can buy a notebook computer for under $800 today). In its current form, the Sharp only supports PHS mobile broadband, which is only available in Japan, while the Sony supports the more common Wi-Fi (802.11b) and Bluetooth standards. The Sony also boasts a built-in camera. Otherwise, the two devices are very similar in functionality and expansion capability.
The Zaurus is not likely to be a player in the North American market until it formally enters with a competitive price and expanded support for wireless connectivity standards. Until that time, if you like the clamshell design, the Sony UX50 is, by far, the better value (and the superior product).
Overall, the approach Sharp is taking more closely resembles Apples than Microsofts and Palms; if history repeats itself, this will make the Sharp offering a small niche player at best. Still, like Apple, Sharp does a very nice job with its industrial design, and it could help a number of the more traditional players get a clue. And that, in and of itself, would make its efforts worthwhile.
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