A handheld computer, apologies to the Duchess of Windsor, cannot be too thin or too light. Palm Computer (PALM), taking the dictum to heart, has come up with a new line that retains the form of the popular Palm V while adding an expansion slot and a color display. Partner and rival Handspring has entered the field with the sleek Visor Edge, which retains the Springboard expansion slot in a Palm V-like design. The new products should help Palm and its licensees hold and even increase their dominant market share for the time being despite a stiffer challenge from Microsoft's PocketPC (MSFT).
The $399 Palm m500, which will be available in April, is practically a dead ringer for the Palm V in size, shape, and price. The $449 m505 adds a color screen. The big difference in the new models is a slot that accepts a postage-stamp-size card. Currently, the cards offer memory expansion and software including a $29.95 game card and U.S., European, and Asian city guides ($39.95 each). Developers plan various accessories, with the most exciting being wireless communications options. If the Handspring (HAND) experience is any guide, however, it will be months before the first of these hits the market.
The new Palm has a rechargeable battery that uses a relatively new technology called lithium polymer to pack more power. Palm claims up to five weeks of normal use per charge for the monochrome model and about three weeks for the color version. I would guess that two weeks is closer to the mark, but that's plenty for most business trips. The sync cradle doubles as a charger. This is the first Palm model to use the universal serial bus instead of the older serial connection (a serial version is a $29.95 option).
One way Palm extended battery life and kept the color unit thin was to use front lighting rather than the brighter and more even back lighting. The result is a screen that is a bit dimmer than the Palm IIIc or Visor Prism, but still quite acceptable. Most Palm applications don't make effective use of color, but the m505 is much easier to read in dim light than the monochrome model.
The Visor Edge, which costs $399, is similar to the m500 in size and function. It is rectilinear, though, where the Palm is curvy and comes with a flip-up metal cover instead of a leather flap. The stylus clips to the outside instead of fitting in a slot. The arrangement seems secure, but I managed to lose mine within a week. The Edge is too small for Handspring's standard Springboard slot for accessories, so an adapter clip allows use of Springboard modules, such as the VisorPhone. Unfortunately, they hang somewhat awkwardly over the back. In time, models will be designed for the new connector, but they won't fit snugly within the body of the Visor, as they do with the older models.
The new Palms come with version 4.0 of the Palm operating system, which supports the accessory slot and has enhancements that make the Palm better at wireless communications through add-ons. Meanwhile, Palm will be totally upgrading the software. The next version, probably at least a year off, will allow a move to a faster processor and a higher-resolution screen.
ET TU, IBM? Most Palm buyers use little beyond the contact and calendar functions. For them this next upgrade won't make much difference. But to retain those who seek more from a handheld, especially corporate customers who want custom applications and secure wireless communications, progress is vital. Palm has wrung all it can from the Motorola DragonBall, a 25-year-old processor. And the coarse 160-by-160-pixel display used on all Palms limits graphics capabilities.
Meanwhile, Palm's competitors aren't standing still. Microsoft PocketPCs, including the new $359 Hewlett-Packard Jornada 525, are getting thinner, lighter, and cheaper. And IBM (IBM) is widely rumored to be readying a challenger of its own for the corporate market.
The new Palm and Handspring products are solid, evolutionary steps. But to maintain its lead over improving competition, Palm may have to pick up the pace.
NOTE: My next column will size up the new Mac OS X operating system from Apple Computer (AAPL). I've been holding off my review until I have put OS X through all its paces, but my preliminary conclusion is there's no need to run out and buy it now. By Stephen H. Wildstrom