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Start-up offers instant messaging on the go

Ecrio plans to demonstrate instant messaging software that uses handwriting recognition and will work on handheld computers.

Two of the hottest technology trends of the past year--instant messaging and handheld computers--are coming together.

Start-up Ecrio today will demonstrate instant messaging software that uses handwriting recognition and will work on handheld computers from Palm and Handspring, as well as on Microsoft Pocket PC devices and Wireless Application Protocol (WAP)-enabled cell phones.

The company will demonstrate the software at the DemoMobile 2000 conference in Pasadena, Calif.

Ecrio's system, called Rich Instant Messaging Platform, tailors messages according to the destination device's display and bandwidth capabilities. Ecrio contact lists, called by some instant messaging systems "buddy lists," let people know what type of device their contacts are using.

The company plans to strike deals with wireless carriers, Internet service providers and Web portals that would offer its technology to customers as a software download. For the system to work, the sender, recipient and instant messaging service would have to have Ecrio's system software.

Ecrio chief executive Nagesh Challa said negotiations with service providers are under way, but he declined to say with whom. And, as might be expected in the insular instant messaging world, Ecrio's software does not interoperate with other messaging systems, such as AOL Instant Messenger, ICQ, MSN Messenger or Yahoo Messenger.

Ecrio's demonstration comes as the Internet's key players in content, services, hardware and software begin to tackle instant messaging for handhelds and other wireless devices. Ecrio will face competition from some of the major players in the device business, including AOL, Yahoo, Palm and Microsoft, which are all looking to bring together two of the most popular emerging technologies.

Even these major companies face significant technical and marketing challenges as they attempt to bring these products to market, however. With the exception of Research in Motion's (RIM) BlackBerry two-way pager and wireless personal digital assistant (PDA), no handheld device on the market comes equipped with the always-on Internet access that instant messaging requires.

Palm to date has offered Internet access only through its Palm VII, which has been plagued by slow and intermittent connections, and through add-on modems for its older devices. Similarly, Microsoft offers Internet access only through add-on modems or cell phone connections on its Pocket PC PDAs.

Further, these devices do not come with usable keyboards. Data entry in general is widely acknowledged to be a looming trouble spot as handhelds become more popular as a means of connecting to the Internet. Handwriting recognition is still seen as difficult to use, and software keyboards--which are used to augment handwriting recognition--are considered unwieldy.

Competing technology designed for specific Palm or Microsoft-based devices is in the works. Palm already offers wireless Internet messaging software that works with its Palm VII series devices. Ecrio is focusing on making its instant messaging product interoperable with a wide variety of hardware, according to the company.

"Using our messaging system, you can write on the screen of a PalmPilot, draw pictures and send business cards," Challa said. "We're looking at how to make it more user-friendly, more device-agnostic and more data-type agnostic."

Interoperability may give Ecrio a competitive edge, but Palm dominates the market for handheld devices, rendering interoperability a secondary concern for many people. Palm controls about 60 percent global market share, according to market researcher International Data Corp., and about three-quarters of the domestic handheld market.

Yahoo already has laid plans to offer its instant messaging software on Palm-based devices. Earlier this week, America Online said it would make its market-leading AOL Instant Messenger system available to some Palm users through a deal with OmniSky.

Palm has scrambled to emulate challenger RIM, which offers always-on Internet connectivity--a key to support for instant messaging.

In announcing its merger with Software.com last month, Phone.com cited wireless instant messaging as one of the potential fruits of the alliance.

Funded by angel investors and based in Cupertino, Calif., Ecrio has been at work on the instant messaging software since its launch a year and a half ago. The company already makes software for a product called SmartPad, marketed by Seiko Instruments, that lets people write on paper and input that data into a Palm.

Challa described SmartPad as an intermediate step on the way to the instant messaging software.

Ecrio lets service providers add the option of inserting animated messages using its Animink technology.