3Com's Palm Computing division in the US today took the wraps off of the Palm VII, which includes wireless capabilities that allow users to download information from selected Internet sites and send and receive e-mail messages.
The device follows the same familiar form factor as existing Palm units, with the addition of a wireless modem and a short folding aerial on the side which also acts as an "on" switch. Company executives at a launch event here described the Palm VII as a "revolutionary" leap forward over existing Palm products.
"This is a very important day for us," said Janice Roberts, senior vice president with 3Com. "We are going to change the way people access and use the Internet forever."
3Com expects to release the Palm VII in the US in late 1999 after field trials have been completed. It will carry a price tag of just under $US800, making it twice as expensive to buy in the US as the current Palm III.
One analyst was impressed by a demonstration here of the unit's wireless capabilities, and said he would "snap one up in a minute".
But the $US800 price tag may too high for many consumers, added Larry Perlstein, analyst with Dataquest. It could even provide a window for Microsoft to gain some marketshare with its Palm-size PC design if it releases a version with similar wireless capabilities, he said.
"I would prefer to have seen them bring it in at under $US500, and maybe even take a loss for a while to shore up some customers," Perlstein said.
However, Palm III users hoping to upgrade to the new model will be disappointed.
"Physically the Palm III can not be upgraded to the Palm VII," Sipher said.
The Palm VII's wireless modem offers a connection speed of up to 8Kbit/s -- compared to 56Kbit/s for many desktop PCs -- and the unit contains no Web browser, so users can't surf the Internet at large. Instead the Palm VII includes "query applications" from each of the 20 content providers Palm has teamed with, allowing users to access sports, weather, stock price, travel and other information.
In a demonstration, 3Com's Sipher opened the Travelocity application, producing a query form stored locally in the system. He entered the name of two airports he pretended he wanted to fly between and clicked enter using the pen input device. That sent a wireless signal out to the Travelocity Web site, and moments later a list of flight times between the airports appeared on the screen.
3Com has dubbed its method of Internet access "Web clipping" referring to sending and extracting only the minimum information needed from a given Web site.
To help make more Internet content available for the device, 3Com announced an aggressive developer program including tools and services to allow other content providers to make their material available to Palm VII users. The content providers can use the tools to build other query applications that users will be able to download to their Palm VII from 3Com's Palm Computing site, Sipher said.
The unit also sends and receives e-mail messages using an application called iMessaging. To keep bandwidth requirements to a minimum the Palm VII will download the first 500 characters of a message with the initial download, then give a user the option to download the remainder of the message, Sipher said.
"We don't expect this to be an e-mail machine. It is too small and it doesn't have a keyboard. But it is a great messaging machine, and that is how we expect people to use it," he said.
Like its predecessors the Palm VII also includes infrared capabilities that allow it to communicate with other Palm devices at close range, a range of productivity applications, and the ability to sync data with a PC. The device has 2MB of RAM -- the same as the Palm III. It offers "weeks of battery life", although not as much as the current Palm III system, Sipher said.
3Com will begin field trials of the device in the US early next year. Overseas users will have to wait longer until, among other things, 3Com strikes similar partnerships with wireless service providers in other countries. The company said it is hard at work building a version for Asian and European users, although they refused to say when versions for outside the US might become available. 3Com still has not produced a version of the Palm OS that supports double-byte characters, Sipher acknowledged.
Explaining why the Palm family jumps from the current Palm III to the Palm VII, Roberts said the company wanted to leave the door open for other Palm devices that might be released between now and when Palm VII appears.