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New GPS handheld hunts for customers

Garmin, a maker of global positioning system devices, has begun shipping its first PDA. It hopes to create a new niche for the slumping handheld industry.

Garmin, searching for a new niche in the slumping handheld industry, began shipping its first PDA with global positioning system (GPS) technology on Thursday.

As expected, the Olathe, Kan.-based navigation company announced the availability of its $589 iQue 3600 PDA with built-in GPS technology. The company introduced the device earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show, during which it said the devices would be ready by the second quarter. Garmin representatives said they missed that target by a couple of weeks, because this was a new kind of product for the company, and they were fine-tuning the device.

The device is the first PDA to come with GPS capabilities--it features a flip-up antenna and Garmin navigation software--combined with organizer functions. PDA manufacturers have been trying to add new kinds of features, from wireless to multimedia capabilities, as they look to revive what was once one of the most promising product categories in the technology industry.

Recently released research data from IDC indicates that handheld shipments decreased worldwide in the second quarter, compared with the same period a year ago, due in part to sluggish buyer demand and a traditionally slow selling season. Shipments were down 10.7 percent, to 2.27 million units, in the second quarter and down 21 percent in the first quarter, compared with the same periods a year ago.

Analysts have attributed the steady decline to a lack of innovation, which they say is also limiting the reach of the devices and restricting growth beyond the enthusiast crowd to which handhelds currently cater.

Garmin is hoping to buck the trend.

"This handheld creates a new utility in the PDA market by integrating organization and navigation into a single device and bringing the benefits of GPS location technology to new and existing PDA users," Gary Kelley, Garmin director of marketing, said in a statement.

The iQue uses Palm OS 5, a 200MHz ARM-based processor and 32MB of memory. The device also comes with voice-guidance commands, a built-in digital audio player, a voice recorder, a Secure Digital expansion slot and a lithium-ion rechargeable battery. The color display has a resolution of 320 pixels by 480 pixels.

As it plans new devices, Garmin is also shifting its research and development efforts from CDMA and follow-on GSM handsets to open mobile technologies such as Bluetooth, according to the company.