How does the best product stay on top in a world where competitors can quickly imitate good ideas? By getting better, of course. That's what palmOne (PLMO ) has done to keep its Treo combination phone, e-mail terminal, and PDA comfortably ahead of improving BlackBerrys from Research in Motion (RIMM ) and Pocket PCs from Microsoft (MSFT ) and its partners.
The changes in the new Treo 650 are evolutionary but important. The first thing you notice is a new screen with four times the resolution of the Treo 600s. What had been a weak point is now the equal of any handheld screen on the market. The new display and better software greatly enhance the camera feature, which was all but useless in the original. Battery life was another big deficiency of the earlier Treo. PalmOne corrected that by moving to a replaceable battery, so you can always carry a spare. And even if the battery runs completely dry, the use of "flash" memory preserves your data and programs.
The keyboard has also been overhauled. A second shift key has been added to the right of the spacebar. The three rows of keys now curve slightly, and the keys themselves are flatter and slightly bigger, although a bit closer together. The combined effect makes it a little easier to type accurately.
A NUMBER OF OTHER CHANGES make the Treo, always a better phone than most of its competitors, even more phonelike. Thanks to handset-style backlighting, it's easier to see all the keys in the dark, and new "send" and "end" buttons make it simpler to make and terminate phone calls. Navigation keys, which had been divided between the top and bottom of the keyboard, have all been clustered around the five-way control at the top. And the addition of Bluetooth makes it possible to use wireless headsets or hands-free setups in cars.
The Treo 650 is offered initially only by Sprint PCS (FON ), although other carriers will follow in the U.S. and elsewhere. It costs $450 with a two-year service agreement; Sprint offers unlimited data service for a $15 supplement to a voice plan.
What are the new alternatives to the Treo? Carriers offer a variety of products based on Microsoft's Pocket PC Phone Edition software, but in general, a lack of integrated keyboards has limited their usefulness for e-mail.The big-screen design of Pocket PCs makes it tough to add a keyboard. But Taiwan's HTC found a solution with a product sold in the U.S. by Sprint as the Audiovox 6601 ($480 with two-year activation; unlimited data for $30 plus a voice plan) and in Europe by T-Mobile as the MDA III.
In its normal state, the Audiovox is about a half-inch longer and wider than the Treo -- still small enough to fit into a big pocket. But the display slides up to reveal a keyboard. The keys are little plastic bumps, as opposed to the Treo's real buttons, but they're raised enough to allow accurate typing.
The bigger problem is that Microsoft has not integrated the keyboard properly into the software. With both the Treo and the BlackBerry, you can handle just about all functions from the keyboard and navigation keys. But the Pocket PC frequently requires clumsy taps on the touchscreen. This is particularly awkward on the Audiovox when the keyboard is open, extending the length of the device to nearly seven inches.
I used the Audiovox with Good Technology's wireless mail, contact, and calendar service, which works around the problem by using many of the keyboard shortcuts that are standard on the Treo, such as hitting "d" to delete a particular message. But by leaving this key capability up to the application providers, Microsoft essentially forces the user to learn a different set of shortcuts for every individual program. The Microsoft-based devices keep getting better, but so far Palm has managed to remain at least one step ahead.
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