Finally, a Hybrid That Really Works

Handspring's Treo shows that the phone and the handheld can hit if off as a couple

Few combinations have seemed quite as natural to me as cramming a wireless phone and a handheld computer into a single package. A lot of people carry both, and obvious links between the contact list and calendar of the handheld and the phone mean that they are often, and awkwardly, in use together. But previous attempts at combos have had limited success.

The Treo 180 from Handspring (HAND ) is a breakthrough. It makes a perfectly good, if slightly bulky, phone while offering the full function of a Palm, whose software the Treo uses under license. It is also the first radical redesign of the Palm in its six-year history, offering a tiny, but usable, keyboard for data entry. The 180 will be available early in 2002 for around $399 with a wireless service agreement. Another version, the 180g, uses the Palm's more traditional Graffiti character recognition to enter data. A color version costing $200 more is scheduled to arrive midyear. The Treo cannot use the various Springboard modules, such as cameras or music players, which can be attached to other Handsprings. That's just as well, because these modules would only be in the way when using the Treo as a phone.

CLEVER DETAILS. Unlike most hybrid efforts, the Treo leaves no doubt about where its first allegiance lies: It's a phone that doubles as a Palm. One clear indication of this is the reworking of the familiar four Palm buttons. Only the datebook button is unchanged. The contacts button has mutated into a button that activates the phone. The to-do list and memo buttons are gone, and their replacements activate a Web browser and e-mail. You launch other applications by pressing a menu key, then tapping a screen icon. A wheel to the left helps you quickly scroll through your phone directory or other lists.

The Treo is a marvel of thoughtful design. At 2.7 inches wide and 4.3 inches long, slightly smaller than standard Palm handhelds, the Treo looks like a big flip-phone. When you open the lid, the Treo turns on with your speed dials displayed. Tap the phone button and an on-screen dial-pad appears. Another tap brings up your phone list. Unlike hybrids such as the Kyocera Smartphone or the Samsung I300, the Treo is as comfortably used without an earplug as with one. Not only is it small and light but the flip design means you're unlikely to get skin oil or makeup all over the screen. Little details like that make a vast difference in usability.

The Treo is significantly bulkier than most phones. On top of the ability to double as a Palm, the payoff is that the Treo can handle wireless data. The 160-by-160-pixel display is vastly better than any phone for getting information from the Web or handling e-mail. Unlike the mini-browsers in phones, which can only read specially formatted Web pages, Handspring's Blazer browser reformats pages for display on the Treo's small screen, though not all sites are handled with equal success. The built-in One-Touch Mail program from JP Mobile lets you e-mail from any standard Internet account.

ALL THUMBS. The catch, for the moment, is Internet access. The Treo runs on the GSM network, which is the standard for most of the world and will soon become pervasive in the U.S. with the conversion of the AT&T (T ) and Cingular Wireless systems. The Treo lets you easily send a text message to any GSM subscriber in the world just by using a phone number as an address. But to use conventional e-mail or the Web, you must first dial up an Internet service provider, then put up with speed of 9,600 bits per second, at best. This will change dramatically next year, when carriers such as VoiceStream Wireless roll out a service called GPRS, for which Handspring plans a software upgrade. Your Treo then should connect to the Internet whenever the phone is turned on, and speeds would increase at least fourfold.

As a confirmed Graffiti user, I have mixed feelings about the keyboard. Handspring clearly modeled the keyboard, best used with two thumbs, on Research in Motion's BlackBerry. On the whole, it is a successful imitation, down to the automatic conversion of entries such as "im" to "I'm" and "dont" to "don't," but the absence of a right shift key is annoying. I also found that efficient operation often required the use of both the keyboard and a stylus to tap the screen. Still, many folks who have avoided learning Graffiti will welcome the keyboard.

The Treo is the most successful design to date of a handheld with an integrated phone. Perhaps as important is the first major change in the basic design of a Palm. Let's hope it marks the first of a run of creative products from Palm and its partners.


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