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Palm unveils Net handheld device

The Palm VII will offer a host of features tying it much closer to the Web than previous versions.

SANTA CLARA, California--Palm Computing announced its next-generation PalmPilot handheld device at an industry event today with a host of features tying it much more closely to the Web than previous devices.

The new Palm VII organizer, priced below $800, will allow users to get information from the Web and corporate intranet sites via a wireless connection, the company said. The device will offer access to flight schedules and news headlines, online transactions--such as movie ticket purchases or online stock trades--from 260 areas in the United States.

Interestingly, the handheld computer's new features are based strictly on how it connects to the Internet, with no new hardware features to speak of. But one point of concern for current PalmPilot users is the inability to upgrade current PalmPilots to the new technology (see below).

As previously reported, the Palm VII organizer isn't expected to be available until later in 1999, Palm said.

Internet access service is expected to be available starting at $10 per month.

Palm will also include a technology called ?web clipping? as part of its new Palm.net service. This is described by Palm as "a means of extracting only a specific set of needed information from a given web site, eliminating the extraneous information prevalent in the Internet browsing paradigm."

In a bid to attract information providers, Palm said that companies can "make their web content available for web clipping directly from the Palm VII organizer." A total of 22 Internet content providers have already done so, according to Palm. These include ABCNEWS.com, Bank of America, ESPN.com, E*TRADE, Fodor?s, MapQuest, MasterCard, Merriam-Webster, Moviefone, TheStreet.com, Ticketmaster, Travelocity, UPS, USA Today, US West, Visa International, The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, The Weather Channel, and Yahoo!.

US West, for example, will offer built-in wireless access to its Internet Yellow pages.

The device will also offer an "iMessenger" application for sending and receiving Internet messages wirelessly. Wireless network service for both web clipping and two-way messaging is widely available throughout most of the U.S., the company said.

Palm Computing acting president Janice Roberts unveiled the device and its Palm.net wireless Internet service today, taking the opportunity to engage in a bit of hyperbole, saying the wireless Palm VII "will change the way we communicate forever."

Razor a no-show
Contrary to speculation, Palm did not unveil the much-anticipated Razor device today, and had no comment on when Palm IV, V, or VI devices may be expected. The departures of several key Palm executives has been cited as a possible explanation for the delay of expected Palm devices.

"It would be foolish to introduce a new [hardware] product at this time of the year," Roberts said, adding that the current Palm III is expected to be a hot seller this Christmas.

The Palm VII is more a moniker for a series of devices, Roberts said, than the seventh generation PalmPilot, and compared the new line to the automobile maker BMW's 300 and 500 series of cars.

Resembling more an online service with proprietary content than a true Internet experience, Palm.net includes the web clipping technology. Palm.net content partners prepare information in a query-response form, allowing Palm VII users to access the information they need with minimal interaction with the Internet itself.

"The Internet is like a coffee table book," said Joe Sipher, director of wireless products for Palm, and a member of the original PalmPilot development team. "We're trying to build a paperback...different content that is much more accessible."

One point of crucial importance for PalmPilot users is the lack of upgradability. Existing PalmPilot users will not be able to physically upgrade their existing systems to access Palm.net content, Sipher said, because any upgrade path would entail physically retrofitting the device with a wireless antenna.

"Palm III is not going to be physically upgradeable...but Palm has always been good to its customers, especially registered users," Sipher said, indicating that some type of promotion may eventually be available for Palm III users.

Palm.net will not offer actual Web browsing, and can not be used to synchronize the PalmPilot with a desktop PC, Sipher said, noting that the PalmPilot form factor and display size is too small for viewing actual Web content.

"Browsing is a bad experience," on the Palm form factor, said Mark Bercow, vice president of platform development for Palm.

The PalmPilot will probably not be "a great email machine-it has too small a screen, and no keyboard. But it is a great messaging machine," Sipher said.

"It is pricey," said Gerry Purdy, of Mobile Insights, who suggested that the Palm VII be made available for free from wireless service provider Bell South, following the business model of the cell-phone industry. Purdy added he expects the price to drop to under $500 by the end of next year.

Bell South Wireless Data, will provide the Palm.net wireless data communication network, which covers most of the United States.

Will developers remain loyal?
The Palm platform has been marked by the staunch loyalty of its developer community, but that momentum may be shifting as third-party software vendors are being lured by the simplicity of writing for the Microsoft Windows CE operating system, which is similar to the familiar desktop version of Windows.

Around 3,000 developers are involved with the Palm platform, while an equal or slightly greater amount work with the Windows CE platform, according to Terry Nozick of Mobile Insights. "Windows CE is going to provide Palm a run for its money," she said. "Palm has led the way, and gotten in through the back doors to corporate America. The ease of use and functions are great, but are not going to sustain it over the next couple of years."

But, Nozick added, "Palm is aware of what's going on, and I'm sure they're smart enough to figure it out."