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Sony unveils Palm-based PDA

July 14, 2000
Web posted at: 8:44 a.m. EDT (1244 GMT)

TOKYO (IDG) -- Sony unveiled working models of its long-awaited handheld computer based on the Palm operating system at a Tokyo press conference Thursday.

As fans of the Japanese consumer electronics giant have come to expect, the new device, which Sony is calling a "personal entertainment organizer," comes with some of the styles and features now becoming standard fare on the company's products, but consumers may find initial versions of the device have several shortcomings.

When Sony begins shipping the device in September in Japan it will offer two versions, color and monochrome screen models, with otherwise identical features and an almost identical price.


"We have a very clear focus," said Keiji Kimura, president of information technology at Sony's Personal IT Divisional Company. "We wanted to pursue the utmost ease of use."

Chief among the list of hardware features is a slot for the company's proprietary Memory Stick memory card. In addition to offering users a way to add extra memory or even transfer files to the device, Sony is planning to produce a range of peripheral hardware, such as a video camera, with an adaptor that plugs into the Memory Stick slot thus doubling its use as an expansion socket too.

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The first models won't, however, support versions of the Memory Stick used with the company's digital music players, meaning it cannot do double duty as an MP3 player. The built-in copy protection hardware required to support the music memory cards won't be available until second-generation versions of the device come on the market.

Another feature is the "jog-dial" button which is now becoming a standard feature on many of Sony's cellular telephones and portable electronics devices. The button allows users to scroll through lists on screen and select with a push of the same button making one-handed operations much easier.

One area where the device does set itself apart from other machines based on the Palm operating system is in its ability to play video. Sony increased the clock speed of the device's Dragon Ball EZ processor to 20MHz and worked with U.S.-based Generic Media, which provided a software-based system to enable video playback. The quality of playback depends on the video being played, but is somewhere between four and ten frames per second, said Masafumi Minami, general manager of the network and interface department at Sony's internal Personal IT Network Company and an engineer on the project.

Otherwise the machine is, at heart, a Palm-based computer much like the competing Pilot and Visor machines. Sony has added some extra software to set it apart from those devices, including a new Web browser, mail software and image viewer. The company is also keen to get developers producing both software and plug-in devices for the new machine and Thursday opened a new Web site for this purpose (see link below).

The company plans to put it on sale in Japan on September 9. There is no official recommended retail price, but the company estimates the color version will sell for around 60,000 yen (US$550) while the monochrome version will sell for 55,000 yen. Officials declined to release sales targets but production is set at between 70,000 and 100,000 units per month. Details on a U.S. launch are expected to be announced by the company's U.S. subsidiary in the third quarter.

With such a small price difference, you might wonder why Sony bothers making the monochrome version at all, especially when the machine is aimed at people wanting to play video and view images in addition to keeping their lives organized.

"Palm culture has always been based on the monochrome screen," explained Minami, "so we thought it was important to make one. Also the screen contrast is much better on the monochrome version."

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Sony (English-language site)
Information for software developers (in Japanese)

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