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Sharp starts shipping Linux handheld

The Zaurus SL-5500 sports advanced features including a slide-out keyboard. But will businesses, which the company is initially targeting, be willing to bet on Linux?

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Lineo software revs up Zaurus
Garnet Brown, senior product manager, Lineo
Sharp Electronics is shipping a Linux handheld, giving that niche market its first major device manufacturer.

The electronics maker announced the device, the Zaurus SL-5500, late last year and said that it would begin shipping in the first quarter of this year. As previously reported, the device uses Lineo's version of the Linux operating system, is powered by Intel's 206MHz StrongARM processor, has 64MB of memory, and sports CompactFlash and Secure Digital expansion slots. The Zaurus' screen has a resolution of 320 pixels by 240 pixels and supports 16-bit color.

Another feature that sets the new Zaurus apart from other handhelds is a tiny keyboard that slides out when needed. Zaurus owners can also input data via handwriting-recognition software and an on-screen keyboard.

On Tuesday, Sharp announced that the device is shipping to retail stores and is available online at Amazon.com. Retailers, such as Office Depot, Staples, Best Buy, Circuit City, J&R, The Good Guys and Fry's Electronics, will be carrying the Zaurus device, according to Sharp.

The electronics maker is aiming the $500 device at large businesses, but analysts are skeptical that large companies will be interested in the high-priced Linux device.

"I'm not sure enterprise is willing to bet their handheld strategy on Linux, since it has yet to take off on the desktop," IDC analyst Kevin Burden said. "The major advantage of a Linux-based handheld would be the cost savings in the overall price point of the device, and the price of the Zaurus isn't appealing enough to make companies want to choose a Linux device over devices based on the two big OSes in the market," the Palm OS and Microsoft's Pocket PC 2002.

Yet Sharp may be onto something. Although many companies are reluctant to embrace Linux, the OS has been adopted for limited use by a number of companies and has become a fact of life in the computing world. Meanwhile, handhelds in general have gained acceptance as business tools, rather than simply as gewgaws to play around with. Linux handelds are a rarity, though.

The Zaurus has features similar to devices based on Pocket PC 2002, some of which can cost up to $150 more than the Zaurus. For example, the Zaurus allows owners to view Microsoft Word and Excel documents and to synchronize contacts and addresses with Outlook. The device connects to a PC via a docking cradle.

Sharp has lined up several partners, including Aether Systems, to help provide access to corporate e-mail and data. Sharp announced at the end of last year that it was planning a host of wireless options for the device, including cellular digital packet data (CDPD), and 802.11 and Bluetooth modules.

General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) and next-generation CDMA (code division multiple access) modems called 1xRTT modems--both of which can take advantage of the improved data capabilities of next-generation cellular networks--are planned for the second quarter.

Sharp on April 7 will launch a beta, or test version, of a wireless service. Device owners must purchase a wireless modem and subscribe for an account, which will allow them to wirelessly access the Web and e-mail. The service will cost $39.95 per month plus a $29.95 activation fee, and the CDPD modem will cost $149. During the beta period, which runs through June 8, the modem will cost $99 and the service will cost $29.95; the activation fee will be waived.

With the Zaurus SL-5500, Sharp is relaunching the Zaurus brand in the United States. The company hopes over the next two years to introduce a variety of products, including high-end handhelds that can make phone calls and lower-priced devices aimed at the youth and family market.

Sharp, which has been selling a Zaurus in Japan that uses the company's own operating system, plans to transition its handhelds there to Linux and expects to introduce a Linux-based Zaurus in Europe next year.