Handspring bouncing Springboard slot

The company is scrapping its technology that promised to make handhelds expandable into cell phones, digital cameras and any number of other gadgets.

Richard Shim Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Richard Shim
writes about gadgets big and small.
Richard Shim
3 min read
Handspring is scrapping its once-touted, proprietary Springboard technology--the first technology that promised to make handhelds expandable into cell phones, digital cameras and any number of other gadgets.

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With its latest round of Treo devices, announced Tuesday, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company began supporting a rival technology, Secure Digital, which, though later to arrive on the scene, has gained a stronger foothold in the industry.

The move marks a change in strategy for Handspring as it shifts its focus from expanding a device's capabilities to beefing up its core functions, namely, improving its ability to store data, among other things.

The Springboard expansion slot and the modules that were to be used with it were meant to let consumers turn their handhelds into anything from a combination handheld and digital camera to an electronic book reader. But the technology never took off.

"The promise was that Visor owners could turn their handheld into a number of different types of devices. However, the Springboard modules turned out to be too expensive, too wimpy and too bulky once they began shipping," said Rick Broida, co-author of the book "How to do Everything with your Visor."

In some cases, Springboard modules were more expensive than the handhelds themselves. Handspring's $299 VisorPhone add-on was one such example. Despite its warm reception by the industry when it was announced, the VisorPhone didn't meet sales expectations, and eventually Handspring began offering it for free with the purchase of a Visor handheld.

"The problem with all-in-one devices is that they generally don't do anything really well," said Kevin Burden, analyst with research firm IDC. "You can do a lot with them, but not as well as with a dedicated device."

Made its mark
Joe Sipher, Handspring vice president of product marketing, said the Springboard slot was nevertheless successful because it made expansion an issue. Handheld devices using the Palm operating system and Microsoft's Pocket PC OS followed Handspring's lead, eventually adding expansion slots to their devices.

"It's also interesting because Springboard modules are settling into vertical markets and being used for very specific purposes, such as in the medical field," Sipher said.

Specialized uses or not, though, the life of the Springboard slot will be tied to that of the Visor line, according to Sipher--and that means it won't be around for long. Handspring plans to gradually phase out the Visor in favor of the Treo line.

The only Treo device to use any sort of expansion slot is the recently announced Treo 90, which comes with a Secure Digital slot. However, the Treo 90's Secure Digital slot currently only supports functions like data backup or increased memory, though upcoming Secure Digital technology will allow for the addition of new capabilities, such as wireless-networking by way of a Bluetooth card.

"History has shown so far that input and output is less important than content," said IDC's Burden. And Handspring's Sipher said that the most successful Springboard modules were those that allowed Visor owners to backup their data.

Audible, a Web-based provider of spoken-word entertainment and information, is satisfied with the number of Springboard modules that it shipped and plans to work with Handspring to develop a workable version of its product for Treo devices, according to Audible spokesman Jonathan Korzen. Audible's module lets Visor owners play audio files downloaded from Audible's Web site. Korzen would not comment on the number of Springboard modules the company had shipped.

Another company, Innogear, developed a few modules for the Springboard slot, including a popular digital audio player called the MiniJam. The company had hoped to sell 30,000 to 40,000 units in its first year, but it only managed to sell 15,000 to 20,000.

"The problem with selling something that is supposed to be used with another device is that your destiny is not always in your control," Bob Fullerton, the company's founder, said. Innogear has morphed itself into an online consumer-electronics retailer.

Handspring's U.S. retail inventory level has grown, backing up to 14.5 weeks worth of unsold merchandise as of April 1, up from 11.3 weeks a month earlier and 9.6 weeks' worth a year ago, according to a report by securities firm UBS Warburg earlier this month.