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Palm eyes older networks to handle data

The company signs a deal to let Palm-based wireless devices use pager networks. They're slower than cellular systems but can have broader coverage and be more reliable.

PalmSource struck a deal Monday that will let new wireless handhelds running the Palm operating system take advantage of older networks designed for pagers.

The software and operating system unit of handheld maker Palm said it is working with Dallas-based WebLink Wireless to pave the way for Palm OS-based devices with the built-in ability to run on WebLink's ReFlex network. WebLink spokeswoman Lori Burzynski said that there are a number of companies licensed by Motorola to create devices that use the ReFlex standards and that one of them should have a Palm-based device on the market by the first half of next year.

Although much of the hype around wireless networks has centered on newer, high-speed data setups, there are some advantages to older pager networks like WebLink's. Such networks have broader coverage than many cellular systems and also work inside buildings, where cellular service is less reliable. They're also acceptable in places like hospitals, where cell phones are not allowed because of the possibility of interference with medical equipment.

"It's pretty pervasive," PalmSource vice president Albert Chu said of the ReFlex network. "It gets into places where cell phones and other (devices) can't."

Despite such advantages, the demise of pagers at the hands of cell phones has put a major crimp on the balance sheets of a number of wireless carriers that specialized in low-speed data devices like pagers.

WebLink Wireless itself emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization last month. Rivals Metrocall, Arch Wireless and Motient, have gone through similar processes. WebLink had planned to merge with Metrocall, but that deal fell apart, and WebLink is now an independent private company owned largely by its former creditors.

PalmSource was not deterred by WebLink's financial position, according to Chu, who said the company is in better financial shape as a result of its restructuring.

"I think they are emerging stronger than they were," Chu said. With the bankruptcy, "they are able to shed their past financial mistakes."

Networks such as WebLink's are capable of handling data suited to slower speeds--short text messages, for example--but aren't the preferred choice for delivering graphics or Web pages. But Chu said while such networks may lack the performance of newer ones, they can still offer some wireless access and a good value.

The deal with WebLink is the first time that PalmSource has negotiated directly with wireless carriers, but Chu said the company expects to do more work with carriers to make sure they understand the possibilities of working with the Palm OS.