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Watchmaker gives Palm another shake

Fashion watch maker Fossil is having a second go at melding a wristwatch with a handheld computer--but this time it'll run on the Palm operating system.

    Dick Tracy wannabes, take heart.

    Fashion watch maker Fossil is having a second go at melding a wristwatch with a handheld computer--but this time it'll run on the Palm operating system.

    On Monday, the company will show off a prototype of its new wrist-worn device, which is a watch combined with a full-fledged PDA (personal digital assistant). Fossil will also announce that it has licensed the Palm operating system for the gadget, which is timed for release next spring.

    The new device--known as the Wrist PDA with Palm OS--marks an advance on Fossil's first watch/handheld combo. The Wrist PDA, released earlier this year, was a clunky device that could receive contact and calendar information from a handheld, but didn't operate as one. In addition, the new gadget is slimmer than its forerunner, with a screen the size of a Wheat Thin cracker.

    The big selling point, Fossil officials say, is that people will be able to carry just one device instead of two.

    "Today, people's pockets are full," said Donald Brewer, vice president of technology for Fossil. Brewer concedes that sales of the first Wrist PDA were small, but attributed that to its not being a full PDA, to its large size and to the company's limited sales push for the device. He said the new model is about the same size as a typical Fossil men's watch, and perhaps a millimeter thicker.

    "This is watch-size," he said. "There are certain expectations on a man's watch, and that's what I think we've been able to achieve."

    Fossil's Wrist PDA with Palm OS has approximately the same features as Palm's recently introduced Zire, including 2MB of memory and a 160-pixel-by-160-pixel screen. It even comes with a stylus and, like other Palm OS devices, can accept Graffiti text input.

    However, because the pixels on the wristwatch screen are necessarily tiny, Fossil has rewritten some core Palm programs to use larger fonts or fewer icons and has added a jog-dial switch to make navigating the programs easier. The company says most Palm programs will run on the combo device, though some may benefit from being optimized for its tiny screen.

    Gartner analyst Todd Kort questioned how large the market for such combination devices is.

    "Their new watch is significantly improved, and I do like the product," Kort said. "I'm still concerned how many computer geeks out there are going to spring for it."

    Fossil plans to sell the watch under both its own brand and its new Abacus brand. The Abacus brand will feature either metal or plastic watchbands and will sell at electronics retailers for $199 or less. Meanwhile, the Fossil-brand models will have a more stylish look and fetch as much as $299 at department stores and at Fossil's own outlets.

    Fruitless hopes
    There had been hope from some in the industry that Palm would be announcing a better-known company as the licensee of its operating system.

    "There are a lot of people that would sure like to see Apple come into the market, because they do creative things," Kort said, adding that Palm could also benefit from a licensee that has more credibility in the corporate market than Palm itself.

    Steve Sakoman, chief product officer for Palm's PalmSource unit, said that Fossil's device could open up new opportunities for developers--such as creating custom watchfaces to display the time on the device.

    It also shows the potential for putting the Palm OS in other types of small devices, he said.

    "Certainly when you see it you see how small a Palm-powered device can be, it's pretty stunning," Sakoman said.