March Madness

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It’s shaping up to be a very interesting month for the handheld industry. There are two important events happening in the next few weeks that could bring a series of very significant hardware and software announcements.

CeBIT

It may surprise many Americans to know that the largest computer trade show in the world doesn’t happen in the U.S. We’re used to thinking of Comdex as being huge but it doesn’t hold a candle to CeBIT, held annually in Germany each March. Last year’s attendance was a whopping 682,492.

The fact that this is a huge potential audience isn’t lost on handheld manufacturers. In fact, CeBIT is a traditional place to introduce new handhelds. Either that or companies announce them just before CeBIT so they can demonstrate their new products to all those people. So it seems perfectly reasonable to expect to see several handhelds announced very soon, seeing as CeBIT kicks off March 12.

Toshiba looks like its going to be one of the big stories of this tradeshow. A few weeks ago an article in DigiTimes, a very reliable Taiwanese website, ran an unconfirmed report that the Japanese electronics giant was going to announce the e350 Pocket PC, which will sell for just $200.

If that weren’t enough, just a few days later the FCC granted Toshiba permission to release a pair of new Pocket PC handhelds: the e750 and e755, at least one of which has built-in 802.11b (Wi-Fi) wireless networking.

Palm Inc. is very fond of announcing handhelds in time for CeBIT. For example, the m130, m500, m505, and m515 were all announced in March and there could be more I’m not remembering. Plus, rumors of New Handhelds from this company have been circulating for months. Adding fuel to the fire is a recent round of price cuts to most Palm models. At this point, it seems likely that Palm will introduce two new handhelds, one high-end, one mid-range.

By now, most people have probably heard tales of the Tungsten C. However, details of this high-end model are almost nonexistent and no one can even agree that that name is correct. What is known is that last June, DigiTimes reported that Palm had awarded a contract to a Taiwanese company to make handhelds based on Intel XScale processors. These were expected to be available in the first three months of this year.

Though there has been fewer rumors of a second model, Palm desperately needs to update its mid-range models. The m130 and m500 just aren’t up to competing with the likes of the HP h1910, Dell AXIM X5 Entry, and Sony SJ33.

Speaking of which, way back in November, Anthony Bonadero, director of worldwide mobile products for Dell, said his company planned to introduce two new models in January, which obviously never happened. CeBIT seems a logical place to announce these. In addition to its already-available Axim X5 line, the company is expected to release the Axim X3, an even lower-priced handheld with fewer features, and the Axim X7, which will have more features and therefore cost more. No other details are available on these models at this time.

Recently, the FCC gave us a sneak peek at the Sony TG50, which might run Palm OS 5 and definitely has Bluetooth. There have also been some rumors of a replacement for the SJ20. However, it isn’t known whether these will be announced in time for CeBIT.

At this point it doesn’t look like Hewlett Packard will be announcing any New Handhelds at CeBIT. However, it might make a big splash at March’s other big event.

Microsoft Mobility Developer Conference

While the details are missing (and the subject of endless debate) it’s certain that Microsoft will announce a new version of the Pocket PC operating system this year. While when this will happen isn’t known to anyone outside of Microsoft, the company’s premier event for developers has to top the list of most likely candidates.

A few tantalizing hints have leaked out. Probably the most controversial of these is that the standard screen size won’t change. However, it looks like the next version of Pocket PC will let users easily switch their screen orientation from portrait to landscape, which will be a significant improvement. Just so we’re clear, these are unconfirmed rumors and could easily turn out to be incorrect.

I mentioned earlier that HP might make a big splash at this conference. If Microsoft does announce a new versions of this mobile operating system, HP might be there to announce the iPAQ 2200 series, the first handhelds to run it. However, if rumors are correct, these models won’t be available until this Summer.

Of course, it’s also possible that some companies might pass over CeBIT and make their announcements at the developer conference, where there won’t be as much competition for attention.

The Microsoft Mobility Developer Conference runs March 18 through 21 in New Orleans. There will be three more in Europe, Japan, and Korea next month.

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