Handspring morphs its handheld into a cell phone

The company officially introduces it VisorPhone, an add-on cartridge that blurs the line between a personal digital assistant and a mobile phone.

3 min read
Handspring today officially introduced its VisorPhone, an add-on cartridge that turns its Visor handheld computer into a cell phone.

As previously reported, VisorPhone snaps into the Visor's Springboard expansion slot. Operating on the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) network, the cartridge contains a battery, speaker, antenna and power button.

Handspring, whose Visor is second in popularity only to Palm handhelds, is one of the first companies to ship a product that blurs the line between a personal digital assistant (PDA) and a cell phone. Microsoft and Palm are also hard at work on such hybrid products, which are expected to one day be a popular way to access the Net, make calls, buy products online, and send and receive email.

"The fundamental idea behind the development of VisorPhone was to re-invent the user experience for voice calling," Ed Colligan, Handspring's vice president of marketing, said in a statement.

Mountain View, Calif.-based Handspring expects to release the product by the end of the year.

The VisorPhone, which was designed in partnership with Belgium-based Option International, comes with a hands-free headset and uses software that integrates the phone with personal information stored on the device itself. For example, people listed in the address book can be called by tapping on their name and the dial icon. In addition, other applications can be used while a call is in progress.

The software includes caller ID, speed-dialing, conference calling, and a detailed call history. The add-on cartridge will also allow for wireless Web access, as well as text messaging and wireless synching with a desktop PC, Handspring says.

Although it's the first product of its kind, the $299 VisorPhone is but one of many hybrid devices coming to market in the next two years that combine the features of a PDA and a cell phone.

Palm, which licenses its operating system to Handspring, announced today a partnership with Motorola to jointly develop a so-called smart phone with wireless email and Internet access. Palm has experimented with such products in the past with pdQ, a cell phone-PDA hybrid jointly developed with Qualcomm that was fairly bulky and expensive.

Microsoft has lately been demonstrating its smart phone, code-named Stinger, which is also capable of wireless Internet surfing and handling email.

The VisorPhone will initially be sold only through Handspring's Web site, along with service plans from four regional providers: Bell South, Pacific Bell, Powertel and Voicestream.

The potential success of the VisorPhone is unknown, but several factors are working against it. With the additional cost of the Visor itself, plus other accessories such as battery rechargers, the VisorPhone is significantly more expensive than most cell phones on the market, which are subsidized by service contracts. Because Handspring is directly selling both the service and the phone itself, there will be no such subsidies, at least initially, the company says.

Further, at a time when cell phones are becoming smaller and lighter, the VisorPhone-PDA combination is heavier and larger than most cell phones, which already offer some degree of caller ID and missed call information that the VisorPhone will offer.

Also, the VisorPhone will only work with Handspring products, which have been on the market for a little over a year.