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PalmPilot, Netscape do business

Netscape's browser software offers features that improve corporate applications on 3Com's handheld computers.

In yet another example of how 3Com's Palm Computing subsidiary is making a big push into large corporations, Netscape Communications announced this week that its browser software will soon offer features which allow 3Com's handheld computers to make better use of corporate applications.

For Palm Computing, the agreement is part of a larger push to move the popular devices from the realm of consumer gadget to corporate business tool.

The news follows a similar deal with Oracle. At PC Expo, Palm Computing and Oracle showed technology that lets Palm III and PalmPilot users take a snapshot of corporate databases with them on sales calls, as one example of the technology.

Netscape's browser software will allow for synchronization of Palm Computing address books with corporate information directories stored in central servers. By synchronizing new or changed names, addresses, and phone numbers stored on the PalmPilot organizer in Netscape Directory Server software, users can keep their roaming devices up-to-date or add information to corporate database servers at the end of the day.

To date, the market for handheld computers largely has been driven by individual professionals who buy the devices at retail stores. But as features such as paging and Internet features become more sophisticated, corporate sales will make up more of the overall market, a recent Dataquest study found.

Meanwhile, the Palm Computing has plans to add still more communications capabilities to the Palm platform. But it isn't going to add heftier screens and keypads to the consumer version, unlike devices that are hitting the market now--and bigger handhelds that will come out this fall--based on the Microsoft's Windows CE operating system.

"We haven't even hit the curve yet [in this form factor]," said Ed Colligan, vice president of marketing for Palm Computing in an interview with CNET NEWS.COM. "These devices are just starting to be looked at by enterprises and we haven't even reached a fraction of all the possible consumers," he noted.

Large corporations tend to take anywhere from 12 to 18 months to "qualify" a new platform for use by employees, industry observers say, and Palm is starting to hit its stride in this regard. Underscoring its momentum, IBM started selling its own branded version of the Palm Pilot in late 1997 instead of the Windows CE devices.

Even in 1997, the PalmPilot accounted for more than 63 percent of the handheld market, up from 51.7 in 1996, according to the study. Over 1 million units of the popular 3Com handheld were shipped last year alone, and company officials say the new Palm III is selling at a very rapid pace.

The new features will be available when Netscape Communicator 4.5 arrives later this summer, according to the companies.