April 24, 2000 2:30 PM PDT

Palm arms handhelds for "wireless revolution"

Palm executives in New York today promoted the company's plans to incorporate wireless communications capabilities into its entire product line and said that future Palms will see a boost in performance through new processors.

Palm CEO Carl Yankowski told a gathering of reporters and analysts at the Palm executive summit that in the future, all of the company's handhelds will be able to connect to the Internet. Palm devices will either contain receivers for connecting to the Internet directly, contain chips that will allow Palms to get to the Internet via a cell phone bridge, or come with a cradle or add-on option to facilitate connections.

Whatever the case, the company's handheld devices will be turned into communications devices, and Palm itself will become a kind of wireless service provider, Yankowski said.

"Devices are critical, but they are a means to an end," he said. "We're on the cusp of what I believe is a wireless revolution."

Besides containing wireless technology, some of the company's handhelds will get a boost in performance because they will contain components based on designs from England's ARM (formerly Advanced RISC Machines). The processors, which are designed by ARM and manufactured by Intel and others, run at much higher speeds than Motorola's Dragonball processor, the current brand found inside Palms.

With a faster chip, Palm will be able to provide voice functions and other features, Yankowski said. Palm is also hard at work with a voice-enabled product. The prototype is known as the "integrated Palm communicator."

As reported earlier this month, Palm's plans are likely to both enhance and simplify the company's growing product line.

Almost since it began aggressively expanding its products last year to include wireless Internet access and new designs, the company has taken heat for its confused product strategy, which runs the gamut from the wireless Palm VII on the high end to the low-cost Palm IIIe.

The shift to wireless reflects the newly public company's realization that the market for handheld devices is about to be rocked by the invasion of Wireless Access Protocol (WAP)-enabled cell phones and wireless devices, which use the mobile data technology to offer Web content on cell phone screens.

Although Palm enjoys a 70 percent market share in handhelds, both Palm and Microsoft executives, along with cell phone executives, have acknowledged that many of the functions handled by cell phones, organizers, pagers and even music players will converge onto one device.

For its part, Palm says it will gain popularity through its design, which executives say is better and more stylish than the offerings from competitors.

CNET TV: Palm VII demo
CNET TV: Palm VII demo

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"I think we all know that the screen sizes suck, and that the drop-down menus are the road to hell," Yankowski said.

Other sources predict that the product relaunch will be even more drastic. The company may shift to offer two products--the Palm III and Palm V--and to market two different versions of each of these: one with Bluetooth and one with wireless connectivity. The company also may dump the Roman numerals.

Michael Mace, vice president of product strategy at Palm, earlier this month said that a re-branding effort was set in stone but indicated that change is always possible.

The processor switch will allow handhelds to take on a variety of functions without compromising battery life, according to Linley Gwennap, principal at consulting firm the Linley Group. Dragonball processors run at below 50 MHz, and ARM chips run at 200 MHz. Toward the end of the year, new ARM chips will run at 400 MHz, he said. Faster chips typically mean more powerful processors.

Voice activation or recognition seems destined to become one of the next functions adopted because of the limitations of the current Palm input systems, Gwennap said. With a voice application of some sort, people could simply dictate their commands rather than wrestle with virtual keyboards or handwriting recognition. Voice processing is also a processor-intensive application.

"If Palm doesn't come out with a voice recognition handheld, someone else will," Gwennap said.

Lernout & Hauspie already has demonstrated a prototype of a handheld that could run voice recognition software. The prototype contained a 200-MHz StrongArm processor. Both Hewlett-Packard and Compaq Computer use ARM processors inside models of their respective handhelds.

News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.


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