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Sharp upgrades Linux handheld

The company will release a new version of its Linux-based Zaurus handheld in early 2003 with a faster processor, longer battery life and an emphasis on corporate buyers.

Sharp will release a new version of its Linux-based Zaurus handheld computer in early 2003 with a faster processor, longer battery life and an emphasis on corporate buyers, the company said Tuesday.

The Japanese electronics manufacturer has aimed its current SL-5500 Zaurus at mainstream buyers, but hasn't gained much of a foothold against competing designs using Palm OS or Microsoft's Pocket PC software. The company is changing sales tactics with the new SL-5600, due to go on sale in the first quarter of 2003.

"The Zaurus originally was sold in retail. What we've done with this model is cater to enterprise customers," said Randy Dazo, director of marketing for Sharp Zaurus. Specifically, Sharp believes the Linux and Java software foundations of the Zaurus will work better than Palm or Windows for connecting to back-end servers, a task corporate customers may need, for example, when a traveling salesman wants to enter an order.

But the Zaurus hasn't proved particularly popular thus far, and the new model isn't likely to do much to reverse the trend, said Alex Slawsby, an analyst.

"The design is cool. The component technology is up to par. The problem is the price is kind of high," said Slawsby, who expects the SL-5600 to cost between $500 and $600. Without a price advantage, customers will gravitate toward better-known Palm or Microsoft handhelds, Slawsby said.

For the third quarter of 2002, Sharp was in sixth place in the handheld market, selling about 99,000 models, Slawsby said. No. 1 Palm sold 824,000 units. And for the full year, Linux-based handhelds are expected to account for less than 5 percent of all units sold, with Palm OS on more than half and Pocket PC on about a quarter, Slawsby said.

The Zaurus has some appeal for a small section of the market--people who like the control they can have through the version of Linux from Lineo that Zaurus uses. "That certainly could be a benefit that could be a draw for leading-edge technophiles," Slawsby said.

Sharp plans to demonstrate the SL-5600 at the Comdex trade show next week in Las Vegas.

Sharp cut the price of the SL-5500 to $399 about a month and a half ago, Dazo said, declining to say what the SL-5600 will cost besides more than that.

The new SL-5600 uses the same small keyboard and color screen as the SL-5500, but there are several changes inside the handheld.

The older model uses Intel's StrongArm processor running at 208MHz, but the new SL-5600 will use a newer Intel XScale sequel to the StrongArm that runs at 400MHz.

Another major change is a larger battery, which lets the system run for about 20 hours instead of 10 hours without its screen's backlight off, and four hours instead of two hours with the backlight on. The new model also has a microphone and speaker, whereas the SL-5500 has only an earphone jack.

Sharp also changed the memory, adding more flash memory that stores applications and data even when batteries run down completely.