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Smart Phones: Try, Try Again


The hybrid phone-PDA-wireless e-mail device is a new category that's still trying to figure out what it wants to be. Some, like the Microsoft Pocket PC Phone Edition or the forthcoming Tungsten W from Palm Solutions, are weaker as phones than as personal digital assistants or wireless data devices. The Palm-based Treo Communicators strive for balance between the functions of a phone and a PDA. And now there are two Palm-based "smart phones" from Kyocera Wireless and Samsung that put voice first.

The Samsung SPH-i330 ($499 with activation from Sprint PCS) and the Kyocera 7135 ($499 with activation from Alltel; a Verizon Wireless version is expected soon) are follow-ons to earlier models. There's an important difference, though: While the products are designed to emphasize their phone functions, they do take advantage of new higher-speed data networks that dramatically improve their e-mail capabilities.

The Kyocera looks like a slightly oversized flip phone. Folded, the 6.6-oz. gizmo is about 4 in. by 2.5 in. and a bit more than an inch thick. When opened, the top half contains a color Palm display, while the bottom part adds a data-entry area and the familiar Palm buttons to a standard phone dial pad.

Even though the 7135 is Kyocera's third try at a Palm-based phone, there is still woefully little integration between the Palm and the voice portions of the device. If you touch the display when in phone mode, you get this annoying message: "The phone application is not touch-sensitive." To which I can only ask: Why not? You can dial a number from the Palm address book, but, lacking the Handspring Treo's scroll wheel and quick-search functions, it's almost impossible to do it one-handed.

On the data side, the Kyocera can exchange messages with any standard Internet mail account. It also ships with a copy of Workstyle Desktop Edition from Wireless Knowledge, which lets you send and receive mail in Lotus Notes or Microsoft Exchange corporate accounts. But I think most users will find the lack of a keyboard an impediment to serious e-mail use, especially since the flip design's hinge gets in the way when entering Graffiti shorthand.

The Samsung, a bar-type phone that's 5 in. long, 2.3 in. wide, and 0.7 in. thick, has neither a keyboard nor a phone keypad. Instead, the 5-oz. device has a big color screen that provides a touch-sensitive dial pad in phone mode and a standard Palm display plus a Graffiti entry area in Palm mode. Buttons on the left side at least make it possible to pick a number to call from your phone list with just one hand, though it's not practical unless your address book is short. As with any Palm (PALM) device, you can search the list by writing in the first letters of a name, but you'll have to use the stylus.

The i330's big failing is in its software. Oddly, for a wireless-data product, the only e-mail program that is supplied is Palm's basic mail application, which allows you to sync messages with your desktop but not send or receive them over the air. For $5 a month, you can add Sprint's (PCS) Business Connections service, which gives you wireless access to corporate e-mail. But to get standard Internet mail, you'll have to add a mail program, such as Palm's own VersaMail ($35), and go through the do-it-yourself installation.

The i330 also has the most complicated installation procedure I have seen in seven years of Palm experience. Even following the manual--something not usually required with a Palm-based handheld--I had to call tech support before I could sync with a PC. As it turns out, a critical detail on the need to change a default sync setting was left out of the instructions.

After using both of these products, I was left wondering why anyone would prefer either to a Treo. I suppose the Kyocera appeals to people who will use it mainly for voice and who really want a standard 10-key dial pad, or to those who want to stick with their wireless carrier and don't have a better smart-phone choice available. The case for the Samsung is even harder to make given its software deficiencies and the fact that Sprint offers the Treo 300 for $50 less after rebate.

The smart phone is a concept whose time will come, but it's going to take manufacturers a few more tries. So far, Handspring (HAND) has come the closest to getting it right. I hope the others keep these experiments coming. By Stephen H. Wildstrom


Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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