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Sharp Rejoins U.S. Handheld Market

Sharp officially unveiled its new Linux/JAVA-based Zaurus SL-5500 handheld PC in early December, marking its return to the U.S. handheld market.

Scheduled to ship in the first quarter next year, the new handheld is one of the first to use the Linux/JAVA operating system (OS) exclusively, and it is unique in that it combines a slide out keyboard with pen-based form factor.

Sharp is also teaming up with Aether Systems to offer wireless access service and Sharp says the Zaurus will be compatible with several Compact Flash add-on cards, including Bluetooth, 802.11b and other modems.

Steve Petix, associate VP of the Mobile Solutions and IT Group, said the company strategy is to offer more out-of-the-box features than the Pocket PC but at a competitive pricing.

The new Zaurus SL-5500 uses an Intel 206MHz StrongARM processor, with 64Mb of RAM; 65,000 color reflective screen and both CompactFlash (CF) and Secure Digital (SD) expansion slots.

In addition to the slide out full QWERTY keyboard, it has pen touch operation and handwriting recognition. Other features include an MP3 and MPEG1 player that allows playback of a full movie as well as music.

Sharp claims Linux and JAVA are gaining popularity, with more than 30,000 applications available on the former OS (which can be easily ported to a handheld). The company says the open code of Linux and JAVA will encourage development of useful applications for the Zaurus. But, Petix said, “Our plan is not to focus on the OS but on applications, including out-of-the-box compatibility and synchronization with Outlook to view and edit office suite software. We have a fully functional PIM and also out-of-the-box multimedia compatibility for MP3 and MPEG 1 and 2.”

At the time of launch, Sharp said a low profile CDPD CF modem will be available as well as 802.11b and Bluetooth cards with additional wireless network solutions to follow in the second quarter. Along with Aether systems, the company will develop wireless service plans including behind the firewall Exchange and Lotus Notes synchronization so PIM information and corporate email can be synchronized wirelessly.

Although Sharp did not disclose an estimated retail price, industry members expect the unit to fall in the $499 range.

Alex Slawsby, analyst for International Data Corp. (IDC), Framingham, Mass., said the unit costs less than a Pocket PC, but in a feature-per-feature comparison it remains to be seen if it will gain market acceptance over brands such as the iPAQ. “How are you going to sell the Enterprise when no one is writing for Linux? Sharp’s solution is to link up with Aether Systems, but I don’t know how significant the volumes will be. It’s cheaper for the features but it’s not that much cheaper, so Sharp is breaking some new ground. Whether there’s an uptake remains to be seen.”