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Palm to introduce color screens next year

Palm Computing's popular handheld computers will come with color screens next year, although such displays still raise design and battery-life issues.

SANTA CLARA, California--Palm Computing's popular handheld computers will come with color screens next year, although such displays still raise design and battery-life issues.

Palm has been working on a color-screen device for months and will deliver it by the first half of 2000, said Michael Mace, chief competitive officer for Palm, at the PalmSource 99 conference here today. The conference is Palm's annual meeting of hardware and software developers.

Color represents the next big thing for the handheld community. Currently, the vast majority of handhelds come with black-and-white screens, which offer low image quality that can limit viewing options. With color, the devices will move closer to desktop-PC quality.

But such screens have been a dream deferred for Palm users so far. Color-screen handhelds based on recent versions of Microsoft's scaled down Windows CE operating system came out earlier this year.

Issues surrounding battery life, weight, display readability, and the supply of screens to make the new devices prompted Palm to take a more tentative approach.

In retrospect, caution worked in the company's favor. The Windows CE-based devices were first delayed by a shortage of color screens. When they finally arrived, manufacturers and retailers found themselves quickly cutting the price because of tepid demand.

Price and weight have also been concerns, analysts said. The color CE-based devices debuted at $599, with some weighing 11 ounces, nearly twice the weight of a Palm III. One company, Philips, recently pulled out of the CE-based handheld market.

Ultimately, color screens have not been able to push Palm from its throne. In the 6 months since Microsoft added color to Windows CE for handhelds, the market share for the devices has remained static at around 25 percent, according to research firms.

"There was always an assumption Microsoft would win, but they've largely been unsuccessful," said Mark Bercow, vice president of the Palm platform, comparing Microsoft's handheld business to its struggling online service or financial management software businesses. "Microsoft doesn't have to get it all right--they only have to get it right enough," because of their dominance in the desktop operating system world.

Palm could also face a shortage of color screens, which some analysts have said could extend toward the end of 2000 because of a variety of circumstances. In any event, Mace said last month's earthquake in Taiwan would not have an impact on Palm's plans.

Although the weight and price issues still exist, Palm is "confident" in the development work being done to reduce those problems, Mace said.

More robust internal technology is making the shift possible. Motorola announced yesterday that a new 33-MHz Dragonball chip will include support for color displays. Current Palms use a 16-MHz Dragonball chip.

Also, Palm is handing out the next generation of its operating system to developers attending the conference, which integrates color graphic application programming interfaces (APIs) for the first time, Bercow said. He declined to specify when devices with color displays will be available.

"Not in the short term," he said.

Mace declined to specify whether the new color technology will be integrated into existing products, such as the Palm VII or Palm V.