Palm rolls out wireless i705

Palm Inc.'s latest handheld, the wireless-ready Palm i705, hit store shelves in New York City on Thursday, IDG News Service has learned.

The i705, which runs Palm OS 4.1, the latest version of Palm's operating system, appeared on the shelves of CompUSA on Fifth Avenue in New York on Thursday, but a salesman at the store said the branch sold the first unit on Friday afternoon.

The new PDA (personal digital assistant) is Palm's most expensive offering. It was priced at US$449.99 at CompUSA. Palm's current high-end model, the m505, costs $399 on the company's Web site. The new model features the standard backlight display, a USB (universal serial bus) HotSync cradle with battery recharger and Palm's universal connector, which allows users to connect devices including a keyboard or camera to the bottom of the device.

The i705 weighs 5.9 ounces (165.2 grams), one ounce more than the m505, and it features a slot for Secure Digital (SD) and MultiMediaCard (MMC) cards, which are also available in the m500 series and in Palm's m125. The i705 has 8M bytes of RAM and 4M bytes of flash ROM.

One analyst was surprised that the i705 only has 8M bytes of RAM, while Palm competitor Handspring Inc.'s Visor Pro model has 16M bytes of memory. "It didn't add significantly to the cost or weight of the Visor," said Todd Kort, principal analyst with Gartner Inc. The Visor Pro, a Palm OS PDA that can access the Web with an add-on module, costs $249 on Handspring's Web site.

Kort was equally surprised that Palm used a 160-by-160-pixel monochrome screen on the i705. Palm is likely to have a difficult time convincing users who are used to color screens to switch back to monochrome, Kort said.

Palm decided to use the monochrome screen because it both preserves battery life and keeps the price of the unit down, said John Cook, senior director of product management and planning, in an interview following Monday's announcement. Adding a color screen would have raised the price of the i705 by about $150, and battery life, which ranges from between two to three days for a heavy user, to about a week for an average user, would also have suffered, Cook said.

One notable difference between the i705 and its wireless predecessor, the Palm VIIx, is that Palm has dropped the flip-up antenna in favor of a smaller antenna built into the top of the unit. Palm's VIIx is currently priced at $99, after mail-in discount, on the company's Web site.

Palm has also changed the icon on two buttons on the new version: the "to do" button has been replaced by an image of a globe, while the "memo" button has been replaced by an e-mail icon. Neither button appeared to have any difference in functions on the floor model at CompUSA.

On Monday, when Palm officially announced the i705, the company also unveiled pricing specific to the device. The associate plan offers users 100K bytes of data for $19.99 per month, with each additional K byte of data costing $0.20, said Gail Claspell, Palm's product manager, enterprise solutions, in an interview following the announcement. The second offering, the executive unlimited plan, offers unlimited access to services including e-mail and America Online Inc.'s instant messenger for $39.95 per month. Claspell said. The fee drops to $34.99 per month with a one-year contract, she said.

Additionally, Palm will roll out enterprise services in the second or third quarter, Claspell said. The service, which will be "comparably priced" to the executive unlimited plan, will offer additional business services including a flexible billing system and management capabilities through Palm's upcoming "enterprise services portal," she said.

The i705 is likely to take some market share from Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM), whose BlackBerry devices offer always-on wireless e-mail as well, Kort said.

"The price points are fairly similar," Kort said. RIM's devices are priced at $399 and $499, with always-on e-mail priced at $39.99 per month, according to that company's Web site. However, apart from e-mail, the RIM's capabilities fall short of Palm's, he said. "Palm has a much more robust set of applications, but if you're using the device for e-mail only, RIM is probably a better solution."

RIM's devices also feature a unified mailbox, which uses patented RIM technology, Kort said. With Palm, you would need to connect to a different host when away from home, whereas if someone sent e-mail to a RIM, the user would receive it anywhere in North America, he said.

Nevertheless, the new Palm does help the company in closing in on RIM, Kort said.

Prior to Palm's announcement of the device, one user who purchased it Friday morning was impressed. "I've been waiting for this forever," said Blandon Belushin, a New York-based photographer. Belushin, who had been waiting for i705 since he first heard rumors of it, purchased the i705 to replace his Palm VII, which recently died, he said.

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