Palm exec lays out wireless game plan for future Bluetooth applications at Internet World Wireless

Palm Inc. is hard at work making its popular line of PDAs better wireless clients, according to Alan Kessler, the company’s COO.

Palm, often with partners, is working to support everything from wireless carrier services to short-range Bluetooth wireless links, he told attendees last month at the Internet World Wireless show in New York. Kessler demonstrated a prototype Bluetooth radio that will let a Palm PDA share information with other Bluetooth devices. He said that Palm is making changes to the Palm OS software so that e-mail or calendar alerts can be sent out wirelessly from servers to Palm devices. And he revealed the company is working with unnamed partners to create a compact 802.11b wireless Ethernet interface for Palm devices.

That interface will be in the form of a “sled” into which the PDA fits. “We’re not there yet,” he acknowledged. “Today, it’s a big, big sled that rips your pocket and weighs down your pants.”

All these efforts are spurred by Kessler’s conviction that vendors and enterprise users cannot, and will not, wait for carriers to upgrade to high-bandwidth, so-called 3G nets or even “2-and-a-half G” nets. “The question is, ‘What can you do to not be at the mercy of the carriers?'” he told questioners. “We think we can drive volume now by using today’s wireless nets more simply [and more efficiently].”

Palm users will welcome smoother wireless support, given the awkwardness of using Palm devices wirelessly today. Palm VII is the only Palm device with a built-in wireless modem, which links exclusively to via one carrier. Until recently, users of other Palm models had to buy a separate wireless modem, and set up an account with a carrier.

Using the Wireless Internet Kit, introduced last year, these users can load software and use a cable to plug their PDA to certain brands of cellphones. The phone becomes a modem.

Kessler said Palm is on schedule with work to include this software into a future version of the Palm OS, along with support for the Wireless Access Protocol (for viewing content created using the Wireless Markup Language), and for the widely used Short Message Service.

Palm also will expand its my.palm.portal Web site, which lets Palm users share calendar, e-mail and contact information. Kessler said Palm is creating a synchronization feature that will copy a calendar change made by one Palm device to all other authorized Palm users with access to that calendar. The new feature will be able to work when Palm users log on wirelessly to the portal.

The Bluetooth prototype shown by Kessler is a slim metal case that contains a radio card. The PDA plugs into the case. Bluetooth is a short-range, low-power radio technology that lets devices share information, or connect to a corporate LAN via an access point. The prototype has been in beta testing with Palm developers since late last year.

Kessler said Palm is expanding efforts to enlist and help developers creating Bluetooth applications.

Another key step will be finally delivering, by June, Palm devices fitted with a slot that supports the Secure Digital standard for add-in memory. One use will be to add megabytes of storage in a card smaller than a matchbook. But a growing number of vendors are using the form factor to create plug-in devices that will add voice, digital imaging, Bluetooth or other capabilities to a Palm PDA.

Palm announced last year that it would support the Secure Digital standard. Kessler told his listeners that Palm is on schedule to deliver the first of Secure Digital-compatible Palms by mid-2001.

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