A Phone That Wants To Be More

Ericsson's R380 displays Web sites well, but it's pricey and lacks memory and software

I am walking around with too many digital devices. My normal complement these days includes a phone, a Palm, and a BlackBerry e-mail pager. These tools have to start getting together, and the most logical combination is the phone and the Palm or other personal digital assistant (PDA). Contact lists, calendars, and calls are inseparable.

There are plenty of products sprouting in response to this need. My colleague Larry Armstrong recently tried some (Lifestyle, Feb. 12) and discovered they all had a drawback or two. I have my own opinion about some of these products. But in this column and the next, I'm going to focus on the industry trends driving this convergence and where things are likely to go.

My most important conclusion is that the PDA, not the phone, is the key starting point for design. This implies that phone manufacturers will be much better off partnering rather than trying to beat PDA makers at their own game. The logic is simple: It's a lot easier to design a good phone than a good handheld computer. At least a dozen companies sell phone handsets with some success, but only Palm (PALM) and its licensees have succeeded in the PDA market, though Microsoft's Pocket PC (MSFT) is mounting a challenge.

The Ericsson R380 World (ERICY) ($599, but actual price will vary with service plans) is a pointed example of how tough it is for a phone designer to make the leap into the PDA world. It's a very nice phone: It weighs just 6 ounces, is no bigger than the ubiquitous Nokia 6100 series (NOK), offers long battery life, and its dual-band radio allows it to be used on GSM systems around the world.

The Ericsson is an example of the wireless application protocol (WAP) phone, and it's about as good as they get. The 360x120 pixel display, revealed when you flip open the dial pad, is huge for a phone, and does a fine job displaying Web sites that have been formatted for WAP browsers. (You need an Internet account in addition to your voice-service plan.) And the built-in e-mail program lets you work with any standard Internet mail account, though you can't get to messages hidden behind a corporate fire wall.

Short message service, the wireless phone's answer to instant messaging, works much better on the R380 than on most handsets. Instead of tediously pecking out a text message on the dial pad, you can tap an on-screen keyboard with the stylus, or write in Jot, a simple shorthand similar to Palm's Graffiti. The same approach is used for writing standard e-mail messages.

The R380's shortcomings become apparent when you use it as a PDA. The first flaw is obvious in its specifications: The phone has only 1.2 MB of memory available to you. At a time when the cheapest Palm offers 2 MB and 8 MB is the standard for business use, this is hopelessly inadequate. Once I downloaded my 1,200-name address book and calendar from Microsoft Outlook, I had almost no memory left for e-mail.

Desktop synchronization is where phone makers shouldn't try to reinvent the wheel. To sync a Palm or a Pocket PC, you drop the device into a cradle and, at most, push one button. The R380 asks that you connect a cable, turn on the phone, and start a sync application on your PC. There's no universal serial bus (USB) linking option. This can be a problem, especially on laptops, since standard serial ports are disappearing from new models. You also cannot sync while charging.

Another lesson of the PDA is that everything should be instantaneous. Searching for an address-book entry on the R380 took more than 90 seconds. Scrolling through the contact list was also painful. Once you find a name, however, you can call the person simply by touching the phone number, or send e-mail by tapping the address.

The R380 also lacks the hundreds of applications that have been developed for Palm and Pocket PC devices. There's a software development kit available for its Symbian operating system, which was jointly developed by Ericsson, Nokia, and Britain's Psion, but developers so far have shown little interest.

The PDA-based phones that I'll look at next week are better examples of where convergence design should be going. They are bigger than desirable and a bit awkward, but they've used the hard-won experience of Palm and Microsoft to create hybrids that are much more usable.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.