HP says calculator-handheld combo doesn't add up

Hewlett-Packard pulls the plug on Xpander, deciding that now is not the time to merge calculators with handheld computers.

3 min read
Although the calculator of the future may resemble a handheld computer, Hewlett-Packard has decided that now is not the time to merge the two.

The company has pulled the plug on Xpander, a graphing calculator running Microsoft's Windows CE operating system. HP began circulating prototypes of the device in August and hoped to release the product in the first half of this year.

The idea of converging multiple digital devices has been a popular one since cybersleuth Dick Tracy sported a wristwatch with a two way-radio 60 years ago. However, companies have struggled to find exactly which devices create the right combination for consumers.

Even devices that may ultimately prove popular, such as the combination of a cell phone and handheld, haven't yet found the perfect match of form and function. While several companies are now integrating the two, the Qualcomm PDQ that attempted the same task in 1998 ended up being bigger and more costly than the two separate devices combined.

Dan Feeney, HP's product marketing manger, said Tuesday that the response from educators who tried the unit was good but that the idea of a calculator with limited calendar and address book features just didn't have a broad enough appeal.

However, the company will make the calculator software available as a free download for its Jornada handheld computer and other handhelds that use Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system.

"I don't know if there will ever be a true convergence there," Feeney said. "We are certainly trying to develop the functionality of both" our handhelds and calculators.

Although HP is canceling the Xpander, others are looking at new roles for the venerable adding machine.

Last week, Texas Instruments announced an effort to link its calculators within a networked classroom. TI's Navigator system, which costs roughly $10,000, creates a wireless network in which a teacher can monitor a classroom of students who are using its TI-83 Plus calculators.

Palm has also talked recently about using a Bluetooth wireless network to allow a teacher to monitor a classroom full of students working on their handheld computers.

HP had been aiming to charge around $150 to $250 for the Xpander, which featured a version of Windows CE, along with a touch screen, 8MB of memory, and the ability to connect to an overhead projector or other Xpanders.

For now, Feeney said the company will concentrate on developing more traditional calculators and on making sure there is more niche software, such as the calculator program, available for Pocket PC-based handhelds.

While adding good calculator software to handhelds may improve their appeal to the education market, Texas Instruments Vice President Tom Ferrio questioned whether a handheld computer without fixed buttons can replace graphing calculators in the classroom.

"Our work with schools using touch-screen products gives us serious concern about the durability of the technology in educational use," Ferrio told CNET News.com in an email interview.

TI claims a 90 percent share of the more than 3 million graphing calculators sold in the United States and Canada each year.

While TI won't say what future calculators it is developing, Ferrio said keeping cost down is critically important.

"An important part of the success of the TI-83 Plus is the critical price point of under $100," Ferrio said. "Our experience convinces us that teachers are quite willing to recommend students purchase products under $100, but are much more resistant to recommend higher-priced products."

HP has been a pioneer of the calculator since the late 1960s, which paved the way for it to become a computer industry giant.

According to the online Museum of HP Calculators, HP introduced its first calculator, the 9100A, in 1968 at a cost of $5,000.

Although the price tag was enormous, the calculator was able to do things others could not, such as square root, trigonometric and logarithmic equations. Calculators that did only the four basics--adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing--cost in the range of $1,000 to $2,500 at the time, according to the museum.