Canadian software giant Corel today revealed more of its surprising plans to produce a hand-held computer that will run on Java, plug into the Internet, and serve as a showcase for Corel's Java application strategy.
Product manager Steven Latham outlined the four primary uses Corel (COSFF) envisions for its PDA (personal digital assistant), which is due to ship next spring:
--Personal information management, with standard applications and with voice recording capability for taking brief notes.
--Web browsing. Corel CEO Michael Cowpland told a group of editors earlier this week that Netscape's Navigator will be the installed browser. Corel recently licensed Navigator for its Office Professional 7 application suite, which is being rewritten in Java and will be released around the same time as the PDA.
--Email and fax.
--Ability to synchronize data with desktop PCs via the Internet. The PDA will use Internet protocols to send information to servers and update desktop databases.
Many of the details, including the type of operating system to be included, have not been decided, Latham said, but the PDA will definitely run on Java. This will give Corel an instant market for its Java-based office application suites due in the spring. Latham said the company was committed to open standards but could not confirm that non-Corel software would run on the machine.
At least one analyst suggested the move signaled Corel's diminishing opportunities on the PC front.
"I think we have to say that the desktop application wars are over, and the winner is Microsoft," said Chip Gliedman, industry analyst at Giga Information Group. "Corel has good desktop application technology they can't sell, and they need to find a place they can sell it."
Not surprisingly, Corel will have others make the hardware. Negotiations are progressing with several hardware manufacturers, but at least the design has already been set. The PDA will be rectangular and slightly larger than 4 inches by 3 inches. The interface will be pen-based, but will also have directional buttons as well as a trackball-like device to guide the cursor.
Corel is a member of the coalition that endorsed the Network Computer Reference Profile sponsored by Oracle, but it isn't clear if the upcoming PDA will be branded as an NC.
"This will be a little different than a true NC-spec machine," said Latham. "This works without being hooked up to a server."
However, storage of documents such as email, spreadsheets, and word processing documents will have to happen elsewhere, either on a separate server or on a desktop hard drive. The Corel PDA will come with a keyboard docking station with connections for monitors, hard drives, printers, and other peripherals.
The PDA will have a modem, but will come equipped with a standard phone jack and support for dial-up Internet access at up to 28.8 kbps. It will also feature a separate Ethernet connection.
Analysts were surprised by the news and expressed some reservations.
"My concern is that it would divert their attention from their core business," said Greg Blatnik, vice president of Zona Research. "If attained from elsewhere, however, it might make more sense especially if they're developing the applications that will run on the hardware. It's like giving away the razor to sell the blades."
At least initially, Corel doesn't plan on giving the PDA away. Latham said that the company was shooting for a retail price under $500.
A "preview" beta of the Office Professional application suite with limited functionality will be available as a free download by the beginning of October. The suite with WordPerfect, Quattro Pro, and Presentations will be available early next year. Users of the Java-powered suite will be able to publish documents on the Internet or corporate intranets.