Can Handspring Handle Success?

SAN FRANCISCO (03/17/2000) - Handspring Inc., creator of the much-talked-about Visor, is suffering from its own success.

Last fall the masses went gaga for the expandable personal digital assistant.

It runs Palm Inc. software, is expandable, syncs fast with PCs via Universal Serial Bus, and carries a low price tag ($249 for an 8MB device).

But its very popularity caused problems when Handspring faltered with Visor delivery delays, product glitches, and support oversights.

Recently the company has beefed up inventory, fixed its product problems, and boosted tech support. But today, customers have a different kind of inventory complaint: They're waiting for the Springboard add-ons that helped lure them to pick Visor over Palm in the first place.

Springboarding Ahead

The Visor's Springboard slot accommodates modules so you can add things like an MP3 player or a wireless modem.

Today your only choices are a Handspring 33.6-kilobits-per-second modem, an 8MB backup module, an 8MB Flash module, and EA Sports' Tiger Woods Golf game.

A number of other modules have been announced. Still in development are Concept Kitchen Travel Guide, IDEO's Eyemodule camera, CUE's radio module for music and paging, MP3 players from Diamond and InnoGear, voice recorders from InnoGear and Sycom, Navicom GPS radio, PeanutPress electronic book, Widcomm's Bluetooth, and Home RF wireless networking from Zilog and Xircom.

Many were expected late last year.

"It took longer then we originally anticipated for some of our partners to get the hardware out the door," says Alan Bush, a Handspring spokesperson.

The first third-party module, IntelliGolf, is shipping, he says. Expected by summer are the IDEO eyemodule camera, the CUE radio, InnoGear's modules, and GPS, Bush adds.

Non-Springboard add-ons are also due, Bush says. They include a physician's desk reference and keyboards from Think Outside and Landware.

By the end of the year, some wireless add-ons should be available, Bush adds.

Expected are two-way paging modules and phone modules, as well as Bluetooth and Home RF wireless devices.

'Please Hold for Handspring'

One department Handspring has improved already is its customer service. At first, customers reported hour-long waits to reach tech support. And sometimes when they got through, service was less than spectacular.

Brad Crouch, a graphic designer (and my brother) ordered a Visor in December, largely because of its USB support for Macs. When his Visor arrived after six weeks of waiting, he had almost immediate problems.

"[The Visor] worked for one-and-one-half weeks. Then the HotSync adapter broke and wouldn't sync," he says. "I was on hold with them for over an hour--at my expense, not toll-free--only to be cut off twice."

Later, when he called for a new HotSync cradle, he waited on hold again and even asked for a refund. Crouch uses his Visor now and is happy with the Palm operating system, particularly its calendar and HotSync capabilities. (For future purchases, Crouch has his eye on the Palm V: "It's beautiful.")Handspring Beefs Up Tech Support Customer support is "an area we've had some trouble with," acknowledges Greg Shirai, Visor product manager. He blames higher-than-expected demand and says Handspring continues to work on improving service.

The company recently added 55 people to tech support, Shirai says. Though Handspring won't disclose the number of its support staff, Bush says tech support has been doubled. "There is little to no hold time when you call in," he says.

Ultimately, Handspring plans to publish as much tech support as it can on its Web site, Shirai says. "So far, most of our focus has been on correcting other issues like making sure tech support [personnel] was trained up on the phone and ready to go."

Recent user feedback online and off is more positive, showing signs that Handspring's customer service efforts are paying off.

The Cradle Quandary

Maarten A. Rutgers, an assistant professor at Ohio State University, received his Visor on time. It came with a serial cradle peripheral for connecting to the serial port on his Windows NT PC, and that's where he ran into problems.

"About two weeks later, my Visor stopped HotSyncing," Rutgers says. Tech support told him the serial cradle problem was common for early models but has subsequently been fixed.

"We had some problems with some of the initial cradles that went out," Handspring's Shirai says. "We made some tweaks and fixes that we've rolled into production, and for anyone who went through tech support, we've swapped out the old cradle [for a new one]."

Rutgers says rather than wait for a new cradle, he tried to upgrade to Windows 2000. Then he found that Microsoft isn't rolling out USB support in Windows 2000 until sometime this spring. He got his USB cradle to work with a Windows 98 system but finally requested a new serial cradle.

Handspring immediately sent a return-shipping label for the faulty cradle and replaced it within two weeks. "I got my cradle right on schedule, plugged it in, and it worked with the first HotSync," Rutgers says.

Where's My Visor?

Visor made its debut last fall with shipping delays of as much as six weeks, especially in the preholiday months in late 1999. Since January, Handspring has turned around some of its inventory hiccups.

"When we went out the door, we put up on the site that [delivery] would take four to six weeks," Shirai notes. "We fell down on some of that."

Shirai says investments in inventory and fulfillment have shrunk the delivery lag to one week after you place an order on the Web site, a claim backed up by customers we contacted.

With fulfillment on track and smoother customer support, Handspring seems primed for the next step: the move to retail.

That should happen this spring, Shirai says. But don't expect all the Springboard modules to be there too, he adds.

But Handspring shouldn't wait too long, says Gerry Purdy, president and chief executive officer of the consulting firm Mobile Insights.

"By the end of the year, Handspring must execute with its partners on bringing out the Springboard modules," Purdy says. Handspring should boost its shipments, push retail sales, and grow the add-on lines, Purdy adds. And the company can't dally; competing units are in the works from other Palm licensees, such as Sony.

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