Treo gets smartphone right for Orange, but misses Bluetooth

by Guy Kewney | posted on 17 September 2003

Orange has managed to get the first Handspring smartphone as a "signature" phone - a competitive smartphone based on PalmOS, with one or two odd features, but otherwise a big improvement on earlier Treo designs.

Guy Kewney

PalmSource CEO David Nagel was in London to show off the new device, while Orange VP Martin Keogh spoke about the special features which Orange brought to the product. Demonstrations of the hardware were done by Donna Dubinsky and Joe Sipher of Handspring, as "the last product to come out of Handspring before it becomes PalmOne," as Dubinsky observed.

<1/> David Nagel shows off the Orange version of the new Treo 600

And the phone?

It's a phone. That's a big relief for Handspring fans, since earlier Treo designs were PDAs with some phone abilities. They were also uncomfortable to use, with a clamshell design that had a razor-sharp edge. This one is neat, small, and compact.

It also scores, heavily, over most smartphones because of the excellent battery life. Handspring founder Donna Dubinsky said that it would have six hours of talk time, but about two weeks worth of battery life if you used it purely as a PDA.

Unlike other smartphone designs, this one only switches off the wireless when you power down; the computer side is always ready to take notes at an instant, and there's no power-off switch for that.

David Nagel said that he expected this to increase the Palm OS penetration of corporate markets. "One of the big secrets of the Palm platform, is the number of enterprise developers we have; IDC actually puts the ratio at 2:1 between us and Microsoft, and their figures show us taking market share from them," he said at the launch.

<1/> Compact, a proper phone, not PDA sized

The phone is called the Treo 600. It does have a full QWERTY keyboard, which at first sight looks impossible to use, but is, in fact, nicely designed and makes it quite easy to hit individual keys.

And it is a camera phone, and it is a PDA with all the features that Palm devotees like - except for handwriting. You have to use the keyboard.

The Orange contribution is mostly in features of the Orange network such as automatic backup over the air, and strangely, considering the amount of emphasis on email, doesn't include a POP3 or IMAP mail service.

Dubinsky defended the omission of Bluetooth, saying that in the American market, the idea of wearing separate headsets, whether wired or wireless, was still not regarded as a "normal" thing to do. And, she said, at the time the design decisions were taken, it was still unclear that Bluetooth was going to succeed.

She's almost certainly right on both counts - but the result is that Palm has missed a chance to beat the rival Microsoft smartphone designs to producing a genuine wireless smartphone, and it leaves Symbian designs like the Ericsson P800 out in front.

An ordinary phone without a separate earpiece isn't a problem except in truly hands-free situations; but a smartphone often requires the user to talk and look at the screen at the same time, or talk and type at the same time.

Handspring's designers got the message from users of the earlier Treos - that it was awkward and ungainly to be connected to your PDA with a dangling cable, but that the big PDA was really too bulky and uncomfortable to be used as if it were something you could hold up to your head.

Their solution was to make the phone smaller, and easier to hold up to the ear; and they succeeded nicely - but failed to address the need to keep a conversation going while using the nice square colour display.

Expansion is through a Secure Digital socket. It's possible, said Handspring executives, to plug a WiFi or Bluetooth SD card into the socket, as it is enabled for SDIO - but it's not at all clear how useful this is, because it deprives the phone of its memory expansion. Like most Palms, it's got a tiny memory footprint - only 24 megabytes of the 32 meg in the case is available to the user.

That's fine for a phone, but not for a phone with an MP3 player and a camera built in.

In the UK, Orange will supply the Treo 600 for "a penny under three hundred pounds" said Orange's Keogh. French users will pay around 400 Euros (and upwards) while Orange will also supply it in Switzerland for somewhere between 500 and 480 francs.

It ships next month; the samples on show at the launch were, clearly, prototypes, and review samples won't be available for another week or two.

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