PDA Companies Play Slots

Modules will expand options for mobile users

Handspring Inc., Palm Inc. and Compaq Computer Corp. are playing the slots. All three have developed a bevy of handheld devices featuring expansion slots for holding a variety of add-on modules—from gaming applications to digital cameras—that will give users new choices in the form and function of their PDAs (personal digital assistants).

Leading the charge is Handspring, with its flagship Visor product. Visor, which runs on Palm OS, has long included Springboard slots for accepting many application and hardware add-ons. Now, the vendor is unveiling Visor Edge, with a detachable Springboard slot that slims down a PDA when modules arent needed. Visor Edge measures 4.7 by 3.1 by 0.44 inches, which is about the size of Palms Palm V. (When the slot is detached, the connector is protected by a small hinged door on the devices flip cover.)

At a press conference to launch the product at the companys Mountain View, Calif., headquarters, Handsprings chief product officer, Jeff Hawkins, said that while its possible that some companies may try to build add-ons that fit directly onto the Edge, the companys main focus will still be on the Springboard modules. "We anticipate that Springboard will be around for a very long time," Hawkins said.

While other companies are following suit, "Handspring really has the momentum with the modules right now," said Dayakar Puskoor, CEO of J.P. Mobile Inc., a San Diego wireless software company that helped develop Springboard modules. Currently, Handspring offers more than 50 Springboard modules on its Web site.

In the debate over whether customers want phones that look like PDAs or vice versa, Handspring officials said Visor Edge aims for the latter. With a Visor phone module and removable Springboard slot, users can have a combination device with a large screen when they want it and a skinny PDA when they dont.

"As a designer, the usability design alone is very interesting," said Byron Seese, experience design manager at Zefer Corp., an Internet consultancy in Boston. But as for the phone module, "I cant picture myself speaking into it; it seems a bit odd," Seese said.

Visor Edge, which has a monochrome screen, runs Palm OS 3.5 on a lithium-ion battery and includes 8MB of RAM. It comes in three metallic colors—blue, silver and red—and costs $399. It is available now.

The idea behind expansion slots is twofold. First, they make it possible for users to add hardware to PDAs without adding too much girth. Second, its possible to put applications onto these modules so that they take up space in the module rather than in the devices on-board memory.

"[But] thats a secondary use," said Nathanial Freitas, chief technology officer at ThinAirApps Inc., a New York company that makes Internet access software for handheld devices. "The Springboard modules that are available [are] 90 percent hardware add-ons."

Palm is planning new versions of its thinnest device, the Palm V. The m505 will have a color screen and include an SD (Secure Digital) expansion slot, according to company officials in Santa Clara, Calif. The m500 has a monochrome screen.

Both will run on the next Palm OS, Version 4.0. The m505 is set to be available in May, priced at $449; the m500 is due next month, priced at $399.

The company will show the devices at the CeBIT trade show in Hannover, Germany, this week.

Palm officials have said that SD is considered standard technology in the industry, while Handsprings Springboard is proprietary.

Handspring officials counter that Springboard slots are more versatile than SD. Indeed, the cards that Palm is introducing for its m500 series are application rather than hardware add-ons. These include a games card, a dictionary card, three travel information cards, a card that holds backup data and a 16MB memory expansion card. A Bluetooth card is expected in a few months.

"We wanted people to be able to turn this into a phone, a modem, an MP3 player," said Greg Shirai, director of Visor products at Handspring. "SD lets you carry around maps and photos, but today we see it is very difficult to support hardware [with SD]."

Meanwhile, on Microsoft Corp.s Pocket PC operating system, Compaq Computer Corp. has introduced the Pocket PC H3635, which is similar to the iPaq already on the market but has a CompactFlash expansion pack. This add-on sled holds two CompactFlash cards, enabling users to increase file storage space on iPaqs. It retails for $599.

It will be available in stores by months end, said Compaq officials in Houston. The company also announced a separate expansion pack that holds two Type 2 PC Cards or one Type 3 PC Card, meaning users can perform simultaneous operations with the device—using a modem and a bar-code scanner card at the same time, for example. That pack is due next month, priced at $199.

Compaq is beefing up its iPaq line of handhelds with a device that comes with a large amount of integrated memory. As with previous versions of the iPaq, the iPaq Pocket PC H3670 runs on Microsofts Pocket PC operating system, but this one includes a whopping 64MB of memory. That sounds like a lot for a PDA but could be necessary for those who use the device to save and play MP3 files. Slated to be available early next month, it will cost $649.