Move over personal computers, you’re just not personal enough. Consumers are seeking something sleeker, something less sedentary. Something that will perform more technological acrobatics and perhaps be a little easier to cuddle up with on a rainy day. Or so handheld computer makers and visionaries would have you believe.
Handspring is one company banking on the future of handhelds, the market for which it says will expand to 30 million units during 2004.
With 28 percent of the U.S. market, 18 percent of the Japanese market and nearly 2 million units sold, the company is in a powerful position to take advantage of the burgeoning handheld boom.
But beyond simple handheld computing, the company is also one of many firms wading into the ill-defined fray to capture a piece of a new market that will combine portability, computing and communications.
Handspring’s top brass offered offered insights into the future direction of their machines and the market last week while in Tokyo to launch the Japanese version of its newest product, the Visor Edge.
“We believe handheld computing is the future of personal computing. That doesn’t mean that we think personal computers will go away, it just means that we don’t think they’re very personal,” said Donna Dubinsky, CEO and Handspring cofounder.
While Dubinsky and Handspring see the new wave of handheld computing business overtaking its erstwhile desktop and laptop predecessors, they also see it ushering nearly unlimited possibilities.
“Today I believe we are at the very beginning of what will be a very big market for handheld computers. We are also at the beginning of the merging of handheld computers with communication functionality.”
Dubinsky and crew’s newest product, the Visor Edge, hit the Japanese market last Friday. Functionally, the machine is little different from its predecessors, which run the Palm OS and have found a niche in the United States and are proving popular in Japan.
The Edge is slimmer, only 11 mm in width, weighs in at 136 grams, comes in an aluminum casing and will be priced at 44,800 yen, including tax. The Edge retains the expandability of its predecessors, through the use of a removable adapter, the Springboard Slot that allows use of Springboard platform modules.
But while the sleek new handheld is a welcome addition to the company’s line of goodies and the official reason for the shindig, executives had a hard time not shifting to discussing the convergence of handheld computers with wireless communications.
The company has its sights on the fusion of communications and computing, and officials said they are mulling over the best way to get their foot in the door of the Japanese communications market.
“We also believe that handheld computing will be the future of personal communications. We have seen through every generation of computing that when you add communications and functionality, you get vast more functionality out of the computer as they communicate with each other as people use them for communications. We see that happening and this is just the very beginning today in handheld computing.”
In the U.S., Handspring offers a module that permits its handheld devices to function as cellular phone. Likewise, other companies — such as Nokia, Microsoft and Kyocera — are also making a mad dash to piece together smart phones, Frankenstein-like gadgets that will merge best of personal digital assistants with communications — voice and data — capabilities.
Handspring officials say they are hoping to expand into communications in Japan, and are looking into deals with Japanese companies such as DoCoMo, J-Phone and DDI.
“We are definitely talking to all of the major characters and trying to find out where the right access point is for us in Japan,” said William Holtzman, vice president of the company’s international operations.
“Basically I think everybody is reading pretty much the same script. The ‘smart phones’ — the Siemens, the Nokias and the Motorolas — are trying to add organizational capabilities, while Palm, ourselves and Microsoft-enabled products are coming from the other direction,” Holtzman said.
And Handsrping is not the only company in the frenzied chase to concoct the right machine and functions that will land the pot of gold at the end of the media mix rainbow.
“You name it — every hardware manufacturer, every carrier, plus Palm, ourselves, IBM are all going to be in there.”
But there is a silver lining to the clouds of competition gathering on the horizon.
“The good news is that it is not really a winner-takes-all proposition. This will be a gigantic market place because at long last we have got integration of voice, data, surfing e-mail and preferably on one device. You could be the No. 5 player and have a great business.”
That said, predictions are dangerous. And Holtzman noted the industry’s penchant for overshooting customers.
Indeed, in Japan, personal computer penetration lags behind the U.S. and has probably hampered sales of Handspring products, Dubinsky said.
“I think there are some obstacles in Japan. We see less PC penetration, so these as connected devices to PCs have less of an appeal if you are not already keeping your calendar on a PC.”
In Japan it is a battle of trying to tear white collar workers from their Filofax, Holtzman said, adding that once that happens, the market will explode.
“The one thing we have to keep in mind is that we have a tendency to look over the heads of the average consumers. So just because we think the world is going wireless doesn’t mean that that guy that is holding on to his paper organizer is thinking the same thing. You can’t throw the stuff at people and expect them to adapt overnight.”