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Handspring unveils long-awaited Palm clone

Visor offers consumer focus, clever customisation system

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Handspring, the handheld-computer company set up last year by Palm Computing founders Donna Dubinsky and Jeff Hawkins, yesterday unveiled its long-awaited entry into the consumer and business palmtop market. Handspring's VisorDubbed the Visor, the Palm III-style machine will ship in four iMac-esque translucent coloured cased, plus jet black for more sober business types. It's cheaper than Palm's machines, but in other respects Visor is essentially a standard PalmOS-based machine with the familiar monochrome screen, stylus, buttons, and look and feel. What sets the device apart -- or rather, what Handspring hopes will differentiate it -- is Visor's expansion system, called Springboard, designed to turn Visor into the Swiss Army Knife of the palmtop world. The idea is that users will be able to customise their Visors for specific roles. This sounds to us a lot like a standard expansion port, and indeed Visor's initial range of Springboard modules are pretty obvious: RAM expansion packs, software ROMs and a back-up device connector. However, Handspring reckons Springboard will allow themselves and third-parties to add a wide range of features to the basic Visor. Handspring itself has an analog modem in the works, and claims there are pager and cellphone modules on the way. It's a canny idea -- if the modules come. Handspring has yet to release details of Springboard's spec., but presumably it's more akin to a PC Card slot than the Palm's memory upgrade ports so that the device can supply the wide range of power requirements these many different devices will have. The device's success will also depend on Handspring being able to reach a wider audience than the 'executive toy' business that has largely driven sales of the Palm and Windows CE devices. Handspring is definitely targetting the "mass market" -- the colour cases is testament to that -- but the company may need to push its prices down further. Right now (or rather from October, when the thing ships) buyers will pay $179 for a basic model, rising to $249 for a top-of-the-range Visor. Handspring will need to get the basic price down below $100 if it's to appeal to consumers -- as it wants to -- rather than gadget freaks. Consumer are generally used to $5 diaries, notebooks and biros -- persuading them that they should ditch them in favour of the best part of $200 palmtop isn't going to be an easy sell. Still, success may come through Springboard. Offer an MP3 decoder module and get the price that plus the Visor to, say, $199, and you have a device that could compete very nicely with the hordes of $250 digital music players set to hit the market next year... ® Related Story 3Com set to IPO Palm

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