Palm Hopes to Spark De Zire

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Palm Inc. has officially announced the Zire, a model intended for people who are looking for a low cost, easy to use handheld that can replace a paper organizer. It offers a minimal feature set but sells for $99, the lowest introductory price ever for a Palm OS model.

Palm is walking a fine line with the Zire. In order to keep the price down, the company has included just the features it believes are necessary and no more.

For example, the Zire comes with just 2 MB of internal memory, which is quite small compared with its more expensive competitors. However, Palm argues that 2 MB is enough to store thousands of address book entries, several years worth of calendar entries, and still leave room for a few other apps.

It is important to remember, though, that minimizing costs wasn’t the only criteria designers used. Ease of use was the other major one. That’s why the Zire uses an internal rechargeable battery rather than removable AAA’s. The company could have made the Zire cheaper by using AAAs but, in Palm’s opinion, it wouldn’t be as easy to use. The user only needs to plug their handheld in every couple of weeks in order to keep it charged.

This is because the Zire uses very little power. It has a 16 MHz Dragonball processor, rather than the 33 MHz one commonly used on entry-level Palm OS handhelds. This decreases the amount if power used and the total cost. While 16 MHz may not sound very impressive, it is more than fast enough for the address book and calendar applications that are at the heart of this model.

When some information about the Zire was leaked in advance of the formal announcement, the feature that proved most controversial was that it had only two application buttons on the front, rather than the traditional four. Some have believed this was a cost cutting measure. However, according to a company spokesperson, this was intended to simplify the unit for users because it concentrates on the two apps they are most likely to use, the address book and the calendar.

Another decision made by the designers that is sure to be controversial is that the Zire doesn’t have a backlight at all, another measure taken to decrease cost and power use. Other than this, it has a typical screen for an entry-level handheld. It is grayscale and 160 by 160 pixels. It is slightly smaller than most Palm OS screens, about 1.8 inches on a side. For comparison, a m500 series screen is 2.05 inches on a side.

Reducing the feature set to the minimum has another advantage besides just reducing the cost: the Zire is the lightest Palm OS model ever at 3.8 ounces and is relatively small at 4.4 by 2.9 by .6 inches. It sports a look that bears no resemblance to the m100 series, Palm’s previous entry-level models, and is reminiscent of Apple’s iPod.

One major departure Palm has made from past models is that not only does the Zire not come with a cradle, it can’t be used with a cradle at all because there are no ports on the bottom. A power cord and a mini-USB port are both on the top, along with the stylus slot and infrared port.

Obviously, this means that this model doesn’t make use of Palm’s Universal Connector, which means it won’t be able to use the large number of cables, keyboards, and other accessories which plug into the UC.

It runs Palm OS 4.1 and comes with the typical built-in applications, like the Address Book, Date Book, Memo Pad, and Note Pad.

The Target Market

When advance word leaked on this model, some questioned the need for a handheld that could only handle basic Personal Information Management (PIM) functions. To answer these critics, Palm cited a study done by Maritz: Thompson, Lightstone & Co. that showed that of 104 million purchasers of digital devices of one kind or another, 26 million want a handheld only for its PIM functions. And this is only in the United States, not Europe and the rest of the world.

Palm intends to sell the Zire in places like Target and it comes in a blister pack, not a box like most handhelds. It is already available at the Palm Store.

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