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A Euro Challenger to BlackBerry?

By Steve Wildstrom


Reviews below)

Editor's Review

The Good Excellent display, great multimedia capabilities

The Bad Keyboard not nearly as good as competition. Very expensive

The Bottom Line If you're a text-messaging fan, it's a possible alternative to Treos and BlackBerrys

In North America, PDA-phone hybrids mostly come in three flavors: Assorted BlackBerrys from Research in Motion (RIMM), palmOne (PLMO) Treos, and a variety of products running Microsoft (MSFT) Pocket PC Phone Edition software. In Europe, however, PDA phones run software from Symbian, a consortium led by Nokia (NOK).

The Sony Ericsson P910 is a Symbian PDA phone that has a considerable following in Europe. In the U.S., this tri-band model can be used on GSM systems, such as Cingular Wireless (BLS

, SBC) and T-Mobile (DT). However, since it's not sold by carriers here and no subsidies are available, it typically costs more than $750. By contrast, T-Mobile in Germany offers it for 310 euros ($405) with a two-year contract.

E-MAIL LIMITATIONS. The P910 is a bar-type phone about 4.5-inches tall and a bit under 2.5-inches wide -- roughly the same size as the palmOne Treo 600. The bottom third or so of the unit is a hinged dialpad that controls the standard phone functions. When you flip it open, it reveals the full length of the display -- more than 2.5-inches long -- and a little alphabetic keyboard on the back of the dialpad.

In the U.S., the main reason people carry BlackBerrys and Treos is for e-mail. Text messaging, while available, isn't used very much, especially in business. In Europe, it's just the opposite, with short-message service -- text messages of 256 characters or less -- used very extensively for both business and personal communication (see BW Online, 1/20/05, "When a BlackBerry Is Overkill").

Not surprisingly, e-mail seems a bit underdeveloped on the P910. Its program is less advanced than those found on Treos, BlackBerrys, or Pocket PCs. It can be set up to send and receive from standard Internet accounts, but it doesn't offer a good way to get at e-mail behind corporate firewalls, though some third-party corporate mail services are beginning to support the Symbian operating system.

WEAK SYNC. The keyboard is also less than ideal for e-mail. The keys are very small and flat. And when held in typing position, the whole unit becomes seriously top-heavy, which forces you to hold it rather awkwardly while typing. Still, these deficiencies are less noticeable when tapping out very short messages. You can also enter text with a stylus directly on the screen, writing in stylized characters similar to those used by Palms and Pocket PCs.

One area where Symbian has been relatively weak is synchronization with desktop programs such as Microsoft Outlook. It lacks a built-in technology like Microsoft's ActiveSync or Palm's HotSync. The P910 comes with the Sony Ericsson PC Suite, which does an adequate job of syncing with Outlook, though it's not as seamless as the Microsoft and Palm versions.

In addition to the traditional contact and calendar functions, the P910 comes with a rich set of multimedia applications. The camera unfortunately is just a VGA, offering much lower resolution than the 1.3-megapixel devices included on some high-end phones. The camera can take both stills and brief videos. Also included are a video player and an MP3 player. To store all that content, the P910 can accept memory cards, though only in Sony's proprietary SmartCard Duo format.

Given the steep price and the complexities of do-it-yourself data setup, I doubt that many folks in North America are going to choose the P910. But Symbian is an interesting alternative to the competition and is showing up on some U.S. products, particularly "feature phones" from Nokia. And from a consumer point of view, the more competition in phone software, the better.

Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek

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