COMDEX: Handhelds quiet, await 'next big thing' |  Hardware

At last year's Comdex trade show, Internet connectivity was the hot topic for handheld makers, with Palm Inc. and Microsoft Corp. both announcing deals or products that gave devices based on their operating systems mobile connections to the Internet. This year, few major new handheld products are slated to be announced as the market waits for the next breakthrough in this area, observers say.

"A lot of the industry is waiting for the next big thing to come along," said Travis Glasson, a research analyst at International Data Corp.

That next big thing could be converged devices that meld the functions of mobile phones and handhelds, he said. One such product which will be demonstrated at the show is the Treo from Palm-licensee Handspring Inc. The Treo offers the functionality of a mobile phone, a handheld computer with an always-on Internet connection and an integrated keyboard all in one device.

Glasson expects the Treo to be the"first in a series of devices that are merging the functions of handhelds and phones."

Ed Suwanjindar, product manager for Microsoft's Pocket PC division, also expects that "the days of the single-function device are definitely numbered." Customers "are definitely expecting more than just a date book;" they want multimedia and Internet features, he said. Microsoft offers these features in its new Pocket PC 2002 platform, which was announced in early October, he said.

Because the new version of Pocket PC was announced so recently, few announcements of new applications or devices for Pocket PC are expected at Comdex, Suwanjindar said. Of interest, however, will be NEC Corp.'s first public showing of its new Pocket PC device and a wireless network of 65 Pocket PC devices for use by show-attendees, he said.

Palm and its licensees have been largely quiet before the show, though published reports have stated that Palm plans to announce a new version of its operating system, Palm OS 4.1, at the show. Palm would not confirm these reports, nor did it make a spokesman available for comment by deadline for this story.

IDC's Glasson expects that Palm will continue to push the benefits of its 500-series line of handhelds at the show and said that upgrading the OS would be a step in the right direction for the company.

Even Palm's closest competitor, Microsoft, isn't sure what Palm has up its sleeve for the show.

"To be honest with you, I don't know," said Microsoft' Suwanjindar. "I've not seen or heard rumblings of a lot of work coming out of that camp ... they've remained relatively quiet."

Despite the lack of big plans from the major players in the market, a number of companies will be announcing or demonstrating new applications for handhelds at the show:

-- Blue Nomad LLC will unveil a new version of its WordSmith word processing application for the Palm OS;

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