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Palm targets real-time email

When Palm Computing unveils its newest handheld with wireless Internet access Monday, it will be taking an important first step in the email world.

When Palm Computing unveils its newest handheld with wireless Internet access Monday in New York, it will be taking an important first step toward the goal of providing full Internet access to non-PC users, observers say.

As reported earlier, Palm Computing will launch its Palm VII and complementary Palm.net service in a staggered rollout, starting Monday, sources say. The service still has some kinks to work out, but it offers a glimpse at the future of Internet communication.

The rollout of the Palm VII, accompanied by 3Com's push into the wireless arena, also underscores the heightened competition in the handheld world, which has exploded in popularity. Palm currently enjoys 72 percent of the market, according to market research firm International Data Corporation, but Microsoft and its Windows CE manufacturing partners are close on its heels, and they're expected to roll out their own wireless products sometime next year.

The $599 Palm VII is nearly identical to its predecessor, the Palm III, except for the antenna which enables wireless connectivity. This antenna connects the user to the Palm.net "Web clipping" service which offers pared-down Internet content optimized for the small screen of the Palm VII.

Palm VII users can request specific information from a slew of content providers that have signed up as partners with Palm.net, as well as send and receive short messages through the iMessenger service. However, the device offers neither full access to the Internet nor real two-way email, services that Palm executives have said in the past are ill-suited to the small screen of the Palm VII.

"We're not quite there yet, but as a first attempt what they're doing is fine," said Terry Nozick, of industry newsletter Mobile Insights, who predicts that despite Palm's assertions to the contrary, the future of PDAs includes full access to the Internet.

Palm will probably ultimately offer a full email application as part of its wireless service, because email is the "killer app," of any Internet device or appliance, said Fran Firth, an analyst with Cahners In-Stat. "This is the beginning of Palm's entry into the wireless world. They do have a road map, but they understand what the obstacles are--and email is one of them," she said.

"Email is something necessary. It's getting beyond 'nice to know' information and getting to 'need to know' information," Firth said. "It's nice to know if my team won last night. I need to know if a document arrived or if an order came through."

Essentially, Palm is offering something between a two-way pager and a notebook computer with wireless Net access, and thus will compete with each of these devices, and everything in between, analysts say.

"They're sort of creating a new category," Nozick said. "We're going to see a lot more devices come out that do what the Palm VII does." In the meantime, Palm will most likely overlap to the greatest extent with two-way pager users, who are used to receiving stock tickers and news feeds and sending out short messages.

However, most two-way pagers offer nearly unlimited usage plans, said David Thor, an analyst with Sherwood Research, so Palm will probably have to adjust the pricing of the Palm.net service. "Unlimited use is already being offered," he said. "It's a high enough price point that people are going to educate themselves, both from a service and device perspective."

The pricing of the Palm.net service currently discourages any kind of long email exchanges, as its charges are based on the amount of data sent and received, a Palm spokesman said. "We want to discourage people from using [iMessenger] as a primary source of email," he said. Although "more fully integrated email capabilities are something that Palm is looking into."

But the Palm VII does allow short, back-and-forth email messages, which are vital to business users. "People cannot live without email, but 95 percent of messages are short and brief, like a confirmation on a meeting," Nozick said. "Quick bursts of information--these are the messages that keep businesses going day to day."

However, one obstacle to including an email application is Palm's method of inputting data. Although Palm's Graffiti handwriting recognition application has been lauded as an efficient way to input limited information like addresses and appointments, the method may be ineffective for composing and sending emails.

"Over time, in order for people to do wide-area messaging, they'll need a faster input device or keyboard access," said Thor. "But this is a great first start."