December 4, 2001

Sharp shows off new Linux handheld, plans more Linux products

Author: JT Smith

- By Dan Berkes -
Handheld/organizer pioneer Sharp Electronics jumped back into the North American palmtop business on Monday, giving reporters a preview of a remade Zaurus. Company officials say they're hitching onto a growing trend, with Linux powering the wireless and multimedia features of the renovated handheld.

"This is not a Sharp approach against the rest of the world," a Sharp spokesman said at a press briefing. "This is a trend that's accelerating for Linux to extend itself out ... we're not trying to create a trend, we're trying to deliver on a trend to bring solutions to our customers now."

As announced several months ago at the CeBit trade show in Germany, Sharp's Zaurus SL-5500 handheld uses a version of Lineo's Embedix Plus embedded Linux.

The new operating system uses features that make the new Zaurus a completely different creature from the personal organizers the company marketed in North America during the 1980s and '90s.

Underneath a reflective 16-bit color TFT screen designed for easy viewing indoors or outdoors, the SL-5500 offers a 206MHz Intel StrongARM processor and 64MB of memory. Additional programs and media can be loaded from the top of the slim handheld's CompactFlash and Secure Digital expansion slots.

At first glance, the sleek and silvery Zaurus looks like any other handheld, with the requisite number of buttons and "rocker" selector panel underneath a screen slightly smaller than a business card. The panel with those buttons slides down, revealing a small QWERTY keyboard useful for commands that text recognition can't handle, and ideal for users who would rather type their messages and memos.

The new Zaurus handheld should be available in the first quarter of 2002. Pricing information was not announced, but the device is likely to cost about the same as handhelds that use Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system -- about $500 -- and will include roughly the same number of features.

"It's now up to us to prove that there's an alternative that offers an advantage," said Steve Petix, Sharp's v.p. of mobile and IT solutions. The company's promotional efforts to date seem to reflect its hopes that Zaurus will find a home almost anywhere.

The company is playing up the Open Source angle to developers and Linux enthusiasts, stressing the SL-5500's community underpinnings. Developer information notes the ease of porting applications from KDE to the handheld's graphical user interface, Trolletch's Qt Palmtop (called Qt/E in Sharp's press release).

Consumers are likely to hear about the "Windows-like" advantages of the new Zaurus, featuring email synchronization with Microsoft's Outlook clients and the ability to read Office file formats. Multimedia and the ability to run multiple programs are featured heavily. Demonstrating the handheld's capabilities, Sharp representatives loaded a CompactFlash card filled with MP3s, loaded the playlist in the Zaurus media player, and let the tunes play while showing off other aspects of the new gadget.

Corporate buyers and power users will be lured with heavy use of the "W" word -- wireless. The company plans to support a wealth of ways to grab data over the air, and the first quarter of 2002 will see add-ons for cellular digital packet data (CDPD) for existing wireless data services, 802.11 to access corporate LANs, and Bluetooth modules. Future services include General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) and 1xRTT support for next-generation data networks.

To further attract the attention of corporate users, Sharp has lined up a few partners including Aether Systems, which will help the electronics manufacturer connect corporate clients to their existing email and provide support and infrastructure for data services.

That partnership with Aerie is a crucial part of Sharp's new handheld plans. "One of the foundation stones of our strategy is alliances," Petix said. "We're not going to march into the enterprise market without partners."

That marketplace, as envisioned by Sharp, will top out at 14 million units total, with about 10 million of those units in the hands of enterprise users.

"We see [enterprise] as a real growth area," said Petix.

Sharp hopes that the SL-5500 will lead to a wider array of Linux-powered products under the Zaurus brand name over the next two years. If consumers flock to this device, said Sharp executives, then expect to see everything from premium priced gadgets that integrate voice and data services to affordable devices with design, features, and services that appeal to teens and families.

Of course, a little uniqueness never hurt any product launch.

"There's no one else out there that has what we have, with the integrated keyboard, with a color screen, with the expandability," boasted Petix. "By the same token, there's no one who has pulled together this turnkey corporate enterprise solution with this type of a platform."

Sharp sells another version of Zaurus in Japan that uses the company's proprietary operating system. It plans to transition its handhelds there to Linux, launching a Linux-based Zaurus in Europe sometime in 2002.

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