Handheld makers scramble to fix memory glitch

Because of an error in a chip from Micron, certain handheld devices from Palm, TRG and Handspring are vulnerable to a glitch that could erase data.

Palm, along with the companies that build products based on the handheld maker's technology, is readying a fix for an obscure memory chip problem.

Because of an error in an 8MB DRAM chip from Micron, certain handheld devices from Palm, TRG and Handspring are vulnerable to a glitch that could potentially erase data, including contact information and calendar dates. TRG has a workaround available now, while Palm and Handspring expect to have patches ready by the end of the month.

The error, which apparently was discovered during TRG's testing of the new Palm operating system, is not a bug in the Palm OS itself. But the problem relates to the OS: Palm devices refresh themselves automatically every minute, and the data corruption occurs in the memory chip during this self-refresh, according to TRG.

But the problem can be fixed in the latest version of the operating system, OS 3.5.1, according to the TRG Web site, and each company is separately working on non-OS fixes.

Handspring, for example, is working on a software fix for the problem because its units do not contain the flash memory chips necessary for an OS upgrade.

Handspring's Visor, which accounted for 25 percent of all personal digital assistants (PDAs) sold at retail in May, will fix the problem with a software application that can be stored in the device's RAM, just like any other application. This is a different tack than Palm or TRG is taking, because those products use upgradeable flash memory to store the OS.

"The patch sits on the device like any other application would. The Visor does not have the ability to upgrade the OS," said Allen Bush, Handspring's spokesman, noting that the Visor fix should be ready by the end of the month. "The patches that are being delivered are not OS upgrades."

But TRG is recommending on its Web site that its customers, mainly corporate users, fix the situation by updating their operating systems. Although the company is also working on a separate fix, the new OS solves the problem immediately, according to the site.

For its part, Palm has posted an alert and is readying its own solution. The company was not immediately available for comment on what form its update will take. Palm chief operating officer Alan Kessler said previously that the problem was discovered May 30 and that a software patch is in the works.

There is approximately a one in 8,000 chance of data corruption in each such cycle, TRG says, or roughly one chance in 5.5 days of continuous use that the affected devices will crash. These devices include the Visor Deluxe, the Palm IIIc, IIIxe and Vx, and the TRG pro.

"We've had an extremely low percentage of calls about this problem," Handspring's Bush said, adding that to date, no U.S. customers have returned any units because of the issue.