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Sony to offer peek at Palm-powered handheld

The electronics giant plans a sneak peek at its much-anticipated handheld at PC Expo, yet the company won't even say what it plans to call the device.

    Electronics giant Sony plans to give computing aficionados a sneak peek at its slimmer, much-anticipated handheld computer at PC Expo this week, although all the details won't be divulged.

    As first reported by CNET, Sony will offer a glimpse at the personal digital assistant (PDA) device at the show. But don't expect to find out how much it will cost, what type of hardware it can handle, or even what the company plans to call it.

    Instead, Sony will offer a prototype of a digital device based on Palm's operating system, albeit with some significant technical departures from the popular PalmPilot products. For example, the Sony PDA will offer a dial control that allows an owner to scroll through menu choices. In addition, the device will support Sony's Memory Stick portable storage cards.

    This first-generation PDA will also feature "digital imaging" capabilities, Sony said without providing further details. The device is expected to hit shelves in the United States by early fall.

    "We are excited to show the progress Palm Computing and Sony have made to date for the development of Palm OS-based PDA with Memory Stick capability," Keiji Kimura, president of Sony's information technology company, said in a statement.

    Sony's PDA is one of many non-PC products expected to be a big draw at this year's PC Expo show in New York. Unlike years past, which have focused exclusively on personal computers, this year major PC makers like Dell Computer and Compaq Computer have been pushed aside as devices and other computing gadgets take center stage.

    Sony's PDA is expected to be the first in a family of wireless and portable products from the consumer electronics giant. Eventually, analysts expect the company to release other handheld products that offer wireless Internet access, one or two-way paging, "beaming" technology that allows communication with other Sony products, and high-end digital audio and video features.

    The PC Expo preview is part of Sony's renewed push into the digital device market, after exiting the U.S. cell phone business last year. Sony is expected initially to offer products based on Palm's operating system, but it also has licensed Symbian's operating system for "smart" cell phones.

    The company also announced a deal with Sun Microsystems today to create Java-enabled smart phones for release in 2001.

    Sony's reputation for innovative industrial design and its experience in marketing portable digital products like the Walkman gives the company some indisputable advantages and could provide a shakeup to the burgeoning device market.

    Palm has thus far dominated the portable market, taking around 80 percent of the market this spring, according to NPD Intelect, which tracks sales. But Palm faces increasing challenges from its licensees, including Sony and Handspring, which took 25 percent of the retail market in May. Products from HP, Compaq and Casio based on Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system have so far failed to make much of a dent in Palm's dominance.

    "Considering their strength in producing high-quality consumer electronics products, I have no doubt that Sony's entry into the PDA marketplace will spur the growth of this category," Alan Kessler, chief operating officer of Palm's platform group, said in a statement today. "I can't wait for the official introduction of Sony's first PDA."