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Danger Inc snags all-you-can-eat deal for Hiptop debut

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T-Mobile's Sidekick communicator rolls into US stores today, and Danger Inc has ensured the device will make a splash by snaring the first all-you-can-eat data deal on this side of the Atlantic.

Tariffs for the new generation of always-on, packet data digital services from cellphone companies, described as 2.5G (or if you're Sprint "3G") have carried a penalty for users. The first Megabyte of data is typically free, but additional use is charged by the byte.

The Sidekick - which is how T-Mobile will market the HipTop - will carry a $39.95 a month flat fee for data usage. This model is GPRS, but Danger has a 1x CDMA version in the pipeline - and will launch a color model into the European market in the near future.

Danger Inc. was founded by Andy Rubin, formerly of WebTV, and drew much attention when Steve Wozniak joined the board late last year. Although it's a tiny start-up in comparison to Nokia and Microsoft, it employs a galaxy of talent from across the Valley, most notably from former Be Inc. engineers. It has chosen a thin client model - your data lives in the cloud, and the applications are Java - and it resolutely targets consumers in the yoof market, rather than enterprises with its $199 Hiptop. Er, Sidekick.

And on this count, Danger has achieved a minor miracle. The Sidekick is fast, fun and ridiculously easy to use. It does exactly what it says on the tin - providing a phone, AOL Instant Messenger (but no SMS) and a surprisingly-rich email client with the usual bundle of games and PIM apps. The browser is a bonus - there's no JavaScript support, but pages render cleanly and quickly on the monochrome screen. Most of all however, it sets a standard for usability from which rivals could learn much.

We'll provide a fuller review when we've spent more time with the device. Our first impressions with Sidekick/Hiptop are that it's a joy to use, and could be the breakthrough product for creating a market that's already proven in the rest of the world, but has yet to materialize in the US (thanks to the oxen self-interest of Qualcomm and its carriers, and the regulatory agencies, in failing to ensure there are universal, interoperable standards): the teen texters.

If you're impatient, Henry Norr has an excellent and fair summary here of his HipTop experience, and Henry concludes - as you might too - that for a consumer device its sheer utility, and the quality of the execution, make it highly desirable even if you're outside the target demographic. Because there really isn't a comparable device in the price range. The only real competitor is the Handspring Treo, but it's more expensive and commensurately more flexible - it's an open platform - than the HipTop.

And open vs closed is something we'll hear more of, as the HipTop succeeds.

Writing HipTop apps shouldn't be difficult, as they're pure Java. Rubin describes his role as providing a menu to carriers who can pick and choose which apps they include in the bundle. If there's a weakness in Danger's model, this is it - and not because of anything Danger has done, or could do, but because of its customers. Danger's customers are the carriers - who are at best conservative, and at worst congenitally stupid, and have often shown the same scalping mentality and cronyism as you'd find with small town gangsters.

We're already chaffing at not having a "BOFH" option from T-Mobile, that could give us SSH and a C shell, and maybe Arkanoid too.. (Remember, it was the inclusion of Telnet in the first 1996-vintage Nokia 9000 that saved the platform, and sysadmins created a niche market for the product that was substantial enough to persuade Nokia to continue its development). Choice is good, but do the carriers know this?

For now, though, with its focus on utility and ease of use, Danger is shining a light on a miserable Stateside tech economy (that's just about to get a whole lot worse, we fear, once the shooting starts), and that's enough cause for celebration. ®

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