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Handspring's keyboard pledge, $99 phone

Combo/PDA price cut

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All future models from Handspring will feature a keyboard, the company told us last week as it took its latest GPRS software on the road.

There's a small irony to this, as it's Handspring's founders Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky who popularized pen computing at Palm after high profile failures from Go, Apple, General Magic and Microsoft.

Handspring also dropped the price of its Treo 180 communicator to $99, a dramatic cut.

Product manager Will Rees told us that Handspring was looking at smaller keyboards and improving one-handed operation for its next generation, but that there wouldn't be a return to the pen-only PDA.

"We took out almost every instance where you need to use the pen," said Rees.

But Grafitti remains popular, and a software-Grafitti pad has been added to the latest software bundle. This makes a large number of small improvements that add up to something substantial. Some are long overdue: you can save the sender of an incoming SMS message to contacts, others allow timed email collection that Handspring reckons is as good as the "push" technology that's the core of RIM's email service. There's also tighter integration: for example, you can highlight hot links in mail messages to launch the browser. And the whistling speakerphone issue has been fixed.

A month ago, Handspring settled a dispute with litigation-happy Research in Motion by agreeing to license the latter's amazing QWERTY invention. [see 'Lawsuits in Motion' name distasteful, ignorant

Rees said Treos would come with a database that configured the phone to do GPRS and GSM data for all the major carriers worldwide. Stateside, the Treo has now been certified for the AT&T Wireless GPRS network. (We have an AT&T SIM, but have run into MCI WorldCom-style billing bureaucracy issues. The Dark Star spin-off failed to deduct the deposit from my bank account… then shut down the service without warning, when it realized no deposit had been paid. Doh! We're now back online, and will are preparing a full roadtest).

Such is the utility of always-on data, this latest small software update really marks a new product for Handspring, although the names (270 for the GPRS version and 300 CDMA version) remain the same. Rees reckoned 90 per cent of Treo owners were buying data plans along with their voice plans.

After a mail in rebate, you can pick up a Treo 180 communicator for $99 for a limited time through T-Mobile. Palm launched a $99 PDA based on some very old technology earlier this fall, and that doesn't include a phone. ®

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