January 31, 2002 3:25 PM PST

Gadgets draw a crowd at Linux show

NEW YORK--The crowds are down at this year's LinuxWorld Conference and Expo, but there has still been a mob surrounding the Sharp Electronics booth showing the Linux-powered Zaurus handheld computer.

Show attendance dropped from about 24,000 last year to 18,000 this year because of a drop in travel budgets, Linux hype and computer spending. But there were enough people here this week to supply a constant crowd of two or three deep hovering to test or buy a Zaurus.

Linux is most comfortable on servers, and indeed much of the news at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo concerns million-dollar mainframes the size of refrigerators. But because anyone may freely modify and redistribute the open-source operating system, it's finding its way into much smaller gadgets as well.

The Zaurus SL-5500--with a color screen, a 206MHz Intel StrongARM processor, a tiny pull-out keyboard, rechargeable batteries, CompactFlash and Secure Digital expansion slots, and 64MB of memory--is expected to go on sale in March for $550, said Randy Dazo, director of marketing for Sharp's mobile and information technology solutions group. At the show, Sharp is selling for $399 the SL-5000 developer version--the same as the 5500 except that it has only 32MB of memory.

The Zaurus can synch with Microsoft Outlook and accepts add-ons for wireless networking, digital cameras, video cameras and cellular modems. The company is aiming the handheld at corporate types on the road and enthusiasts with high-end tastes. Apparently, some have already been convinced.

"It's a full-scale computer at your fingers," said show attendee Stewart Samuels of Trenton, N.J. "It actually proves that some neat technology devices don't have to depend on Microsoft."

Analysts, though, are skeptical.

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Lineo software revs up Zaurus
Garnet Brown, senior product manager, Lineo
Most of Sharp's handheld computer sales are in Japan, according to market researcher IDC. But in the United States, where most handheld computers are sold, Sharp faces competition from better-recognized manufacturers with cheaper models.

"Most consumers are already very familiar with the preexisting brands in the United States, such as Palm, Handspring and Compaq, so it will be difficult for Sharp to make a big impact with consumers," IDC analyst Kevin Burden said. "The high price is also likely to be a problem."

Focusing on businesses, which are increasingly looking into Linux, is likely a better bet, Burden added. Sharp is dedicating a sales team in the United States to promote the device to corporations.

The Zaurus uses Lineo's version of Linux, Insignia Solutions' version of Java, Trolltech's Qtopia graphical user interface and Opera's Web browser.

Meanwhile, Sony Computer Entertainment was showing its own curiosity, its PlayStation 2 game console beefed up with the Linux OS, a keyboard, a hard drive, a monitor and an Ethernet port.

Sony sold all 7,900 copies of the beta version of the Linux kit in one day in April, said Dominic Mallinson, director of technology for Sony's North American research and development group.

The company announced Wednesday that it expects to sell the final version of the Linux kit for $199 beginning in May through its Web site. The company hopes more than 10,000 people will buy the product, judging by surveys that Sony has conducted.

Sony doesn't expect the product to be a mainstream hit but rather hopes that hobbyists who tinker with the PlayStation ultimately will become top-notch game designers.

"In the future, we hope an army of PlayStation developers takes hold," Mallinson said. "We are doing this largely for noncommercial reasons. If it just pays for itself as an operating cost, that's fine with us."

 

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