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Handspring set to introduce Palm-based handheld

Handspring will become the second company to market a device based on the Palm Computing operating system one day after 3Com surprisingly announced it would spin off its Palm division.

Handspring today will introduce its first handheld computer, becoming the second company to market a device based on the Palm Computing operating system one day after 3Com surprisingly announced it would spin off its Palm division.

The much-anticipated Visor will come in three models, priced at $149, $179, and $249. The high-end version comes with a leather case and 8MB of memory, unlike the other models, which ship with 2MB.

Featuring a new expansion slot for adding software capabilities--dubbed the Springboard--the low-priced consumer handheld is designed to be easily upgraded with third-party add-on parts. Handspring, formed a little over a year ago by Palm cofounders Donna Dubinsky and Jeff Hawkins, believes the ability to easily add features is key to the Palm operating system's growth.

"For the industry to continue to flourish, the process of adding capabilities like wireless communications and Internet access to handhelds had to become simple, fast and affordable," chief product officer Hawkins said in a statement, adding that Springboard was designed "from a user's perspective, rather than an engineer's perspective."

Ironically, the Visor's launch comes on the heels of 3Com's announcement that it is spinning off Palm as an independent and publicly traded company. Some analysts have speculated that the timing of Palm's announcement was designed to take some of the wind out of Handspring's sails.

But Palm Computing president Alan Kessler said that the timing of Palm's spin-off and expected initial public offering one day before the launch of its much-touted licensee was "just a coincidence."

"Hardware sales are important, but what's also important is recognizing that what matters most is to have a platform that attracts the most developers and creates the largest Palm economy," Kessler said.

"It would be very narrow-minded to only optimize the platform around our own devices. We prefer to take a longer-term view," he said.

Scott Miller, a handheld computer analyst with market research firm Dataquest, said that "Palm is concerned, yet happy that there is a player that will broaden the market."

For its part, Handspring is emphasizing the expandability of the new Visors. The company is working with outside companies to develop add-ons, including MP3 players, modems, pagers, games, digital cameras, removable storage, and global positioning systems.

The Springboard is very flexible, Handspring claimed, because add-on cartridges can be almost any size, use Visor's battery or their own, and use their own function buttons. In addition, the Springboard cartridges automatically install and uninstall software when placed in or removed from the expansion slot, so users do not have to download drivers or use CD-ROMs to install software.

Existing handhelds offer some of these features already. Palm's own Palm VII device offers wireless Internet connectivity through its Palm.net Web clipping service, and some handhelds based on Microsoft's Windows CE operating system offer digital imaging and music.