Asian Handheld Vendors Ready to Take on Palm

Asian vendors are gearing up to attack the burgeoning market for PDAs (personal digital assistants), and most of them are doing so without the help of Palm Inc.'s market-leading operating system.

Asian vendors who showed new PDAs at the Comdex trade show last week said that Palm's restrictive licensing policy had forced them to look at alternative platforms, ranging from Linux to Microsoft Corp.'s Pocket PC platform and the PenbexOS from Taiwanese startup Penbex Data Systems Inc.

While most of the PDAs in question will ship first in Asian markets, several of them are also expected to hit U.S. and European markets over the next year, the vendors said.

Palm has turned down licensing applications from several leading Taiwanese manufacturers, including Acer Inc. and Mitac International Corp., officials from those companies said.

"We'd love to have Palm (OS). We applied and they said no," said Tim Nuttall, director in Mitac's new visual media business unit. "They are scared of the OEM (original equipment manufacturing) makers. You know what the Taiwanese are like, they are suicidal," he said, referring to the willingness of Taiwanese manufacturers to cut prices to a minimum in order to compete.

Instead, Mitac is putting the final touches to a PDA that will ship in two versions, running either embedded Linux or Pocket PC. Both iterations can be equipped with monochrome or color displays, as well as an MP3 player and Bluetooth. Bluetooth is an emerging wireless technology that will allow the PDA to communicate with other Bluetooth-equipped devices, such as mobile phones, and thus connect to the Internet.

The Linux-based version will ship some time during the next few months, while the Pocket PC version is scheduled to ship in March, Nuttall said. In a basic configuration, with a monochrome screen and without a hardware MP3 encoder or Bluetooth, the price per unit for OEMs will be below US$130 for the Linux version, he said. Those OEMs will rebrand the devices and sell them on to end users.

Acer, meanwhile, showed off a new version of its SlimMate PDA based on a real-time Linux operating system with multiple-language support. Featuring Sony Corp.'s Memory Stick technology and powered by a 33MHz Dragonball processor from Motorola Inc., the PDA features a 160-by-240 pixel monochrome display.

Weighing 110 grams, the PDA measures 115-by-75-by-12 millimeters. Other features include 16M bytes of system memory, voice recording and playback capability, and an aluminum-alloy chassis.

Acer is scheduled to ship a Chinese-language version of the device in Taiwan in January, said Eric Huang, director in Acer's Internet solution department. To be sold with a GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) add-on module for wireless access to e-mail and WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) Internet content, the bundle will be priced at around US$500, Huang said. Acer is also looking at selling the PDA in other Asian markets, as well as Australia, Europe and the U.S., he added.

While both Palm OS and Pocket PC, as Microsoft's latest Windows CE 3.0 version for PDAs is called, currently need third-party overlays to handle Chinese-language characters, the PenbexOS was built from the ground up to support double-byte Asian languages, said Frank Tso, chief executive officer of Taipei-based Penbex Data Systems.

To be sure, Penbex's developer support falls well short of the more than 100,000 developers that Palm OS boasts, but Penbex has already signed up more than 1,500 application developers for its eponymous operating system platform, which is the result of a two-year development effort, said Rebecca Chen, developer program manager in the company's global solution service division.

At its stand, Penbex showcased several prototype PDAs from prospective partners, ranging from Acer to TCL Holdings Co. Ltd., a major electronics maker in China. "We are currently working with more than 10 companies, mainly in Taiwan and China," said Tso.

Several other Taiwan-based manufacturers, including Micro-Star International Co. Ltd. and CMC Magnetics Corp., meanwhile, showed off PDAs running proprietary, in-house developed operating systems.

CMC's PA-100, dubbed the Cyberboy, was one of the most feature-rich PDAs displayed at Comdex. In addition to the PIM (personal information management) applications found in most of today's PDAs, the Cyberboy also integrates a digital camera, MP3 player, audio recorder and an FM radio receiver.

Scheduled to ship in Asian markets by year's end, carrying a retail price of around US$399, the Cyberboy is targeted mainly at the youth market and sales people who can take advantage of the unit's camera and recording capabilities, said Mike Tseng, senior product manager in Taipei-based CMC's new products business department.

Pundang, South Korea--based Gmate Co. Ltd., meanwhile, showed off a new version of its Linux-based Yopy PDA designed to be used with a head-mounted visor display from Seoul-based company Daeyang E&C.

Gmate is also putting the final touches to the Yopy device it unveiled at the CeBIT show in Hanover, Germany, in February, and is ready to start shipping the first devices to application developers, a company spokesman said. Cyberbank Corp., another Seoul-based startup, meanwhile, pushed the PDA envelope with its Cybird, a combined cell phone/PDA that features a CDMA (code division multiple access) module for wireless data and voice communications.

Running Windows CE 2.12, the Cybird features a color display capable of 640-by-480 pixels, or full VGA resolution, and the unit's browser provides full Internet access, including support for HTML (hypertext markup language) 4.0, JavaScript and text-based WAP content.

The Cybird is already shipping in limited quantities in South Korea, and is scheduled to reach the North American market by January next year, where it will be marketed as the PC-Ephone, officials said. Pricing will depend on service provider subsidies, but is expected to be in the US$800 range, they added.

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