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PDAs live on as smart phones

Personal digital assistants never fulfilled sales expectations, but manufacturers aren't giving up. And if customers don't want PDAs, vendors like Nokia and Microsoft are figuring out how to outfit people with other kinds of intelligent mobile devices.

Personal digital assistants never fulfilled sales expectations, but manufacturers aren't giving up. And if customers don't want PDAs in their pockets, vendors like Nokia and Microsoft are figuring out how to outfit people with other kinds of intelligent mobile devices.

Nokia this week introduced a smart phone called the Nokia 9000 Communicator, which features wireless voice, fax, and email capabilities, as well as address book functions. Users enter data into the Nokia 9000 through a small onscreen keypad.

The Communicator will ship this summer, but only in Europe and Asia at first. That's because the device is based on the Global System for Mobile Communications, an international wireless standard that is just starting to gain acceptance in the United States.

Because it is aimed at the huge cellular phone user market, the device may have a better chance of success than previous PDAs. "We think the smart phone category will be one of the hottest of the next four or five years," said Gerry Purdy, editor in chief of Mobile Letter, an industry newsletter based in Cupertino, California. "Users want integrated voice and email in a single device."

Microsoft is also resurrecting plans for its PDA software, this time recasting the technology as an Internet access device. Microsoft group vice president Paul Maritz this week described plans for a $500 PDA with a built-in Web browser based on a stripped-down version of Windows. The device is set to ship by the Christmas season, according to Reuters.

Previously, Microsoft had invested in development of a PDA operating system called WinPad, but it pulled the plug on the project when Apple's Newton and other PDAs lagged in the marketplace.

"We have active investments in non-PC platforms," Maritz said earlier this week in a speech at Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference in San Francisco. "You'll be surprised at how far along we are in this area--certainly further than some of the other claims being made in this industry."

Undaunted, PDA veteran Apple today unveiled a new version of its Newton MessagePad at the CeBIT trade show in Hannover, Germany. The MessagePad 130 features a couple of improvements that should ease the strained eyes of users, including controllable backlighting and a reduced-glare screen.

The MessagePad 130, which is based on Apple's Newton 2.0 system software, will be available in April for $799.

Analysts said the new version is an improvement, but probably not enough to make Newton a rousing success.

MessagePad "is an incremental advance in the [PDA] environment," Purdy said. "Users are telling us the next generation of MessagePad requires two PCMCIA slots."