Palm, HP Scramble to Fix PDA Flaws

SAN FRANCISCO (05/25/2000) - Spot a crack in your new Palm IIIC? Do you see 12-bit color instead of 16-bit in your Hewlett-Packard Co. Jornada Pocket PC?

One would assume if you pay $500 for a fancy PDA, you get what you were promised.

This week, Palm Inc. says it has received several reports of its $449 color Palm IIIC developing a hairline crack on the back of the casing. Meanwhile, the $499 HP Jornada 540, the first available Pocket PC sporting a new hardware design, offers less color than promised. Instead of a 16-bit display with 65,536 colors, the Jornada supports 4096 colors or 12-bit resolution.

Component Reduces Color Support

HP actually ‘fessed up (quietly) to the problem last week. The company issued a statement that it "incorrectly stated in its communication that the HP Jornada 540 Series Color Pocket PCs are capable of displaying 16-bit/65,536 colors."

The company claims the screen technology in the device "has the ability to display images up to 65,536 colors" but that "an electronic component within the product limits the actual color resolution that customers can see to 12-bit--or a maximum of 4096 colors displayed at any one time."

Palm claims the reported cracks on the IIIC, its first color device, do not affect performance. Still, Palm isn't taking chances. When I called Palm customer service claiming to have a suspect IIIC, I was offered "an advanced exchange." Basically, Palm offers to replace the unit.

While neither of these announcements is significant in and of itself, it's a telling problem in a new market where both of these new products are under heavy scrutiny.

Flaw Threatens Color Sales

"The is Palm's first foray into color, and Palm prides itself with its simplicity, stability and consumer friendly approach," says Jill House, an International Data Corp. analyst. "It is dangerous to have this [flawed] product out on the market."

Still, Palms have had flaws before, House says. "A lot of Palm IIIs didn't recognize handwriting after a year, and some Palm Vs wouldn't turn on anymore."

But people put up with it because the overall product is so good, she adds.

"With the IIIC, you're paying so much and the screen isn't that great."

For $449, the Palm IIIC only offers 256 colors (or 8-bit), a lot less than even the Jornada's 12-bit support.

By misrepresenting the color support for the Jornada Pocket PC, HP may encourage Pocket PC skeptics and discourage unconvinced consumers from trying one. Prospective customers may also be put off since its Windows CE predecessor, the Jornada 430se, does offer 16-bit color.

"People were looking for a wet noodle to lash Pocket PC, House says. "HP having to concede to the mistake is bad."

The Palm IIIC cracks could just be a bad batch of cases. And the HP Jornada 540's 12-bit color still exceeds Palm's capabilities. Nonetheless, mistakes can be costly for expensive new devices.

"There's an inventory shortage of all Palms except the IIC," House says.

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