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Sharp's new handheld runs Linux

The company, vying to compete with handhelds that use Microsoft's operating system, launches a high-end device with 64MB of memory and a retractable mini-keyboard.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Seeking to prove it isn't the dinosaur of the handheld market, Sharp Electronics on Monday relaunched the Zaurus in the United States.

The company, a pioneer of personal organizers with its Wizard in the 1980s, has sold handhelds under the Zaurus brand since the 1990s. However, the device it unveiled Monday at a press conference here is an entirely new beast, running a version of the Linux operating system.

As previously reported, Sharp's Zaurus SL-5500 handheld uses Lineo's version of Linux, is powered by Intel's 206MHz StrongARM processor, and has both CompactFlash and Secure Digital expansion slots. It offers 64MB of memory and a reflective TFT screen, which can be viewed as easily outdoors as indoors and supports 16-bit color. The device can also run Java programs.

However, the feature that sets the new Zaurus apart from other handhelds is a tiny keyboard that slides out when needed.

Japan-based Sharp said the device will ship in the first quarter. The company did not announce pricing, but the device is expected to cost around $500--similar to handhelds that use Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system and include a number of comparably priced components.

Unlike Pocket PC, Linux has the advantage of being an open-source operating system that can be customized. Still, analysts say, Sharp will face a marketing challenge with corporations and consumers as it tries to compete with devices that use the more widely adopted operating systems from Microsoft and Palm.

"Now they have an alternative," Steve Petix, associate vice president of Sharp's mobile and IT solutions group, said of potential customers. "It's Sharp's Zaurus SL-5500 up to us to prove the alternative offers an advantage."

To arm itself in that battle, Sharp has lined up several partners including Aether Systems, which will help Sharp provide access to corporate e-mail and data. Sharp is also planning a host of wireless options for the device, including cellular digital packet data (CDPD), 802.11 and Bluetooth modules--all planned for the first quarter. General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) and 1xRTT modems, which can take advantage of the improved data capabilities of next-generation cellular networks, are planned for the second quarter.

Although Sharp is relaunching the Zaurus brand in the United States with a single model, the company hopes over the next two years to introduce everything from high-end handhelds that can make phone calls to lower-priced devices aimed at the youth and family market. Sharp, which has been selling a Zaurus in Japan that uses Sharp's own OS, also plans to transition its handhelds there to Linux and expects to introduce a Linux-based Zaurus in Europe next year.