Handspring's Breakthrough Hybrid


By Stephen H. Wildstrom Few combinations have seemed quite as natural to me as cramming a wireless phone and a handheld computer into a single package. A lot of people carry both, and obvious links between the phone and the handheld's contact list and calendar mean that both are often, and awkwardly, in use together. But attempts at combos have been limited successes.

The Treo 180 from Handspring is a breakthrough. It's small and well-enough designed to be a suitable wireless phone, while offering the full function of a Palm-family handheld running the Palm operating system software. It is also the first radical redesign of the Palm template in its six-year history, offering a tiny but usable keyboard for data entry (for a closer look, go to www.handspring.com).

The 180 will be available early in 2002 for around $399 with a wireless service agreement. Another version, the 180g, uses the Palm's more traditional Graffiti handwriting to enter data. A color version costing $200 more is due at mid-year. The Treo is unable to use the various modules, such as cameras or music players, that can be attached to existing Handsprings. But given how well the Treo functions, keeping it simple was a good idea.

USEFUL MUTATIONS. Unlike most hybrid efforts, the Treo leaves no doubts about where its first allegiance lies: It's a phone and then a handheld. One clear indication of this is the reworking of the familiar four Palm buttons. Only the datebook button is unchanged. The contacts button has mutated into one that activates the phone. The to-do list and memo buttons are gone, and their replacements activate a Web browser and e-mail. You launch other applications by pressing a menu key, then tapping a screen icon with a stylus or your fingernail. A wheel on the left helps you quickly scroll through your phone directory or other lists.

The Treo is a marvel of thoughtful design. At 2.7 inches wide and 4.3 inches long -- slightly smaller than standard Palm handhelds -- the Treo looks like a big flip-phone. When you open the lid, it turns on with your speed dials displayed. Tap the phone button and an on-screen dialpad appears. Another tap brings up your phone list.

In contrast to hybrids such as the Kyocera Smartphone or the Samsung I300, the Treo is as comfortably used without an earplug as with one. Not only is it small and light, but the flip design means you're unlikely to get skin oil or makeup all over the screen. Little details like that make a vast difference in usability.

EASY ON THE EYES. Significantly bulkier than most phones, the payoff comes not only in the Treo's ability to double as a Palm but in that it can handle wireless data. The 160x160-pixel display is vastly better than any phone for getting information from the Web or handling e-mail. Unlike the standard browsers in phones, which can read only specially formatted Web pages, Handspring's Blazer browser reformats standard pages for display on the Treo's small screen, though not all sites are handled with equal success. The built-in One-Touch Mail program from JP Mobile lets you e-mail from any standard Internet account.

The catch, for the moment, is Internet access. The Treo runs on the GSM network, which is the standard for most of the world and will soon become pervasive in the U.S., with the conversion of the AT&T and Cingular systems. The Treo lets you easily send a text message to any GSM subscriber in the world just by using a phone number as an address. But to use conventional e-mail or the Web, you must first dial up an Internet service provider, then put up with a speed of 9,600 bits per second, at best.

This will change dramatically next year, when carriers such as VoiceStream roll out a new service called GPRS, for which Handspring plans a software upgrade. Your Treo then should connect to the Internet whenever the phone is turned on and speeds would increase at least fourfold.

THE BEST YET. As a confirmed Graffiti user, I have mixed feelings about the keyboard. Handspring clearly modeled the keyboard, best used with two thumbs, on Research in Motion's BlackBerry. On the whole, it is a successful imitation, down to the automatic conversion of entries such as "im" to "I'm" and "dont" to "don't," but the absence of a right shift key is annoying. I also found that efficient operation often required the use of both the keyboard and a stylus to tap the screen.

Still, many folks who have avoided learning Graffiti will welcome the keyboard. The Treo is the most successful design to date of a handheld with an integrated phone. Perhaps as important is the significance of the first major change in the basic design of the Palm. Let's hope it marks the first of a run of creative products from Palm and its partners. bio:

Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BW Online


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