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Brother's handheld may not sell

Brother International releases a new handheld, but its software could scare away customers.

Brother International has released a notebook-sized handheld called the GeoBook with a word processor, spread sheet, browser, and other productivity applications that give the system computer-like functionality for $599. Too bad, say observers, that its software could make it an unattractive purchase for many users.

The GeoBook is the Japanese manufacturer's attempt to redefine the price and performance equation of the handheld computer, according to Dean Shulman, senior vice president of the company. Consumers are faced with either a Hobson's choice of pens, small screens, and tiny keyboards, or, for a full-fledged notebook, a $1,500 to $2,000 price tag.

By using a notebook form factor with handheld components, consumers theoretically get the best of both worlds.

The Brother computer comes complete with a full-sized keyboard and a backlit VGA monochrome display. It also has a 1.44MB hard disk drive, a PC Card slot for flash memory, an internal fax-data modem, and a low-end SC300 microprocessor from Advanced Micro Devices.

The device runs on the GEOS 3.0 operating system and comes with the BrotherWorks '98 application suite. A browser called the GlobeHopper Net Browser is included.

The software, though, remains a major, and fatal problem. The vast majority of handheld manufacturers have adopted Windows CE from Microsoft as their operating system. Although the operating system is still emerging, Microsoft and its partners are designing the system so that handheld applications port relatively well to the desktop.

Brother maintains that its application suite can be ported to the desktop, but observers doubt that a device with a non-CE system and a fairly obscure application suite will have strong appeal for customers in the long run.

"The proprietary manufacturers are going to die. If they move to Windows CE, there's a chance for life," said Seymour Merrin, president of Merrin Information Services, a market research firm in Palo Alto, California "Without that, it isn't even worth discussing.