Handheld makers introduce new wireless services

In a race to serve the growing “anytime, anywhere” mobile computing market, Palm Inc., Compaq Computer Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. all introduced new wireless products and services for their respective handheld devices at last month’s Comdex/Fall 2000 trade show in Las Vegas.

The high-profile announcements by the three hardware makers are an indication that the focus of Comdex, which has been squarely on the Internet for the past few years, is now shifting more toward wireless computing, according to Gerry Purdy, an analyst at Mountain View, Calif.-based consultancy Mobile Insights Inc.

The emphasis being placed on handheld devices and wireless connectivity by Palm, Compaq and HP is further evidence that users are entering the “PC-plus era,” said Tim Bajarin, an analyst at Creative Strategies Inc. in Campbell, Calif. “People are going to be using a lot of other devices than a PC to connect to the Internet.”

Palm introduced a US$39.95 mobile Internet module that’s supposed to add wireless communications support to its entire line of handheld devices. Bill Maggs, Palm’s chief technology officer, said the new module fulfills a promise made last spring, when the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company said all its devices would gain wireless capabilities by year’s end.

Only Palm’s newest model, the Palm VII, provided wireless services before now. With the new module, Maggs said, users will also be able to connect their handhelds to cell phones equipped with wiring cables or infrared ports. That capability is targeted at users in Europe, where many Global System for Mobile Communications phones include an infrared port.

Palm also introduced a wireless portal called MyPalm that it said will let mobile users automatically synchronize date-book and calendar information with home office systems while on the road.

Barry Cottle, the company’s chief operating officer, said users of the new service won’t have to return their Palm devices to the system “cradle” in order to perform the data synchronization. The new portal, which is due to be launched Dec. 25, will also offer access to Web sites optimized for display on handheld devices, he added.

HP rolled out a wireless modem and mobile Internet access service for the Jornada, its version of Microsoft Corp.’s Pocket PC technology. Kevin Havre, a marketing manager for HP’s iAppliances division, said the company is offering a wireless modem from San Diego-based Novatel Wireless Inc. for US$349 and unlimited wireless access priced at US$39.95 per month. That kind of “all-you-can-eat” access is aimed at holding down potentially high wireless access charges for heavy users, he said.

Compaq introduced a series of products that provide both wireless LAN and cell phone access for the iPaq, its version of the Pocket PC. Ted Clark, the company’s vice-president for wireless Internet technologies, said Compaq will sell a cell phone wireless-access card priced at US$299, with unlimited access that costs US$60 per month. A plug-in card that provides high-speed wireless LAN access that’s based on the 802.11B industry standard was also detailed, although Clark said pricing still hasn’t been set.

In addition, Compaq said it plans to begin testing the much-ballyhooed Bluetooth personal-area networking technology next year, using short-range wireless devices based on the Bluetooth standard as a replacement for the cables that connect iPaq handhelds to cell phones or printers. Bluetooth received a lot of attention at Comdex last fall, but the technology mostly remains in the prototype stage.

Mobile Insight’s Purdy said the fact that Compaq and other vendors still aren’t shipping Bluetooth-based products is a “great disappointment,” given the hope that the technology would be available in devices by the end of this year.