Study: Handhelds point to growth

Worldwide sales of "smart" handheld devices will enjoy a 77.1 percent increase in 1997, according to a new forecast.

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Worldwide sales of "smart" handheld devices will enjoy a 77.1 percent increase in 1997, according to a new forecast from International Data Corporation, as consumers begin to look for ways to store and organize information while they are away from their desktop computers.

IDC says sales of products such as U.S. Robotics' PalmPilot, the Sharp Zaurus, and the new Windows CE-based palmtop devices should reach 5.5 million units this year.

"A large part of the growth is coming from the personal companion and PC companion segment," said Diana Hwang, senior industry analyst with IDC. "They answered a lot of gaps in the industry."

Hwang points to the devices' low cost and ability to synchronize with desktops as key features of the new consumer handhelds.

The introduction of Windows CE was also an important milestone for the handheld market. Although the new operating system is still emerging, it validated the market by bringing big-name companies such as Compaq Computer and Philips into the handheld arena, according to Hwang.

Consumer handhelds should be seen as extensions to desktops, Hwang says. "They're not meant to be a notebook or desktop replacement," she notes.

The relatively weak communications capabilities of the popular systems mean that they are good for carrying contact information and calendars but less effective for Web browsing or email.

The study defined three primary smart handheld markets. The handheld companions market included personal digital assistants such as Apple Computer's MessagePad, personal companions (PalmPilot, Zaurus), and PC companions (Windows CE-based devices and other high-end clamshell style units).

Smart phones with built-in data functions, such as the Nokia 9000, and vertical application devices, including pen-based system and keypad handhelds used by corporations primarily as data-collecting devices, were the other two primary market segments.

IDC predicted the strongest growth in the handheld companion market, with expected growth of 79.9 percent to 3.6 million units this year, compared to 2 million units last year.