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The PalmOne Treo 650: Did You Say Phone, Camera, Computer or Email?

Introduction

PalmOne's launch of the Treo 650 comes at an interesting time in the history of the mobile computing market. It has been more than five years since chipmakers began showing OEMs and wireless telcos the convergence potential of denser and more powerful processors, and the ability to put more semiconductor components onto a single device. The possibility existed, the chipmakers said, to pack the power of mainstream PCs into a device that would fit in the palm of your hand.

The telcos were interested, and began spending billions of dollars to buy the spectrum licenses for 3G data telephony. The thinking went that the dot.com revolution would surely spread into the wireless handheld sector. Consumers and business users would expect Internet data access in their handhelds, not just their PCs.

On a device level, it has happened: handheld devices from heavy hitter OEMs come from different sectors, including HP, Dell, Palm, RIM and Nokia. These have made mobile devices readily available that fit in your hand and offer phone, email, Web access and multimedia applications.

But just what are these devices? Are they smart phones, PDAs or handsets? Consider that many are as powerful as the standard PCs one routinely found on the desks of office workers only a few years ago. For example, the PalmOne Treo 650 reviewed here has a 312 MHz Intel XScale PXA270 processor. So would you call them "smart computers that you can hold in your hand?"

Difficulties in nomenclature have also spilled over into the analyst world, making it hard to discern whether or not wide-scale demand even exists for these powerful mobile computing devices. As we reported in February, IDC said that worldwide handheld shipments last year fell for the third year in a row, dropping 13% to below 1999 levels. But Gartner said earlier this year that PDA shipments grew 6.6% in 2004 to 12.3 million units. How can that be?

The explanation for this discrepancy is that IDC partially defines handhelds as devices that do not have telephony connections, but can offer wireless features for "Internet access and text communication." Meanwhile Gartner defines PDAs as data-centric devices that, among other things, can offer wireless voice capabilities. To add to the confusion, Gartner has another category in the mobile sector that it designates as "smart phones." The firm says these are devices that also offer PDA capabilities, but are voice-centric in function and designed for "one hand operation."

Gartner thus designates the Treo 650 as a smart phone, a definition also shared by PalmOne. According to Gartner, smart phone sales almost doubled from 7.6 million in 2003 to 15.3 million units last year and sales could double again this year.

So where does the Treo 650 fit in the way of business or consumer needs and wants? Or could it be that the Treo 650 represents a shedding period in PalmOne's attempt to regain its once commanding share in the handheld PDA market? As we reported earlier this week Details on PalmOne's LifeDrive , PalmOne is said to be readying a new device that converges entertainment and connectivity, and will create an entirely new mobile computing category. Or perhaps the Treo 650 will continue to represent one of PalmOne's best bets for riding the surge of sales in the smart phone sector?