First there were PC clones. Then (for a while) there were Mac clones. Now it’s 3Com’s turn to compete in the world of licensed operating systems. That’s right: the first Palm OS clone is here. And rather
than being satisfied with the me-too approach taken by most budding clonemakers, this clone’s inventors have added some intriguing features that may radically change the handheld computing market.
The new handheld device, the Visor, comes from Handspring–a company founded by the original creators of the PalmPilot. Featuring built-in Mac support, complete Palm software compatibility, low prices, and an innovative expansion slot, the Visor is the opening salvo in Handspring’s battle to take over the handheld-computing world.
Springboard is Handspring’s name for the Visor’s expansion slot. The rear and top of the slot are open, allowing for modules that wouldn’t fit in a traditional PC-card-shaped slot. Springboard cards can thus extend beyond the top or back of the Visor. Springboard was designed with consumers in mind: modules are hot-swappable and contain all necessary software, which automatically loads and unloads when you install or remove a module. That means you can simply insert a card when you want to use it (even with the power on), then remove it when you’re done.
Initially, Handspring will offer a Springboard modem and various types of memory, as well as a module that can automatically back up your Visor when inserted in the slot. The latter feature is especially useful if you buy the $149 Visor Solo, which does not include a synchronization cradle. Handspring
will also sell a game, EA Sports’ Tiger Woods PGA Golf Tour, which comes on a Springboard card. Looking ahead, Handspring is working with other companies on possible add-ons, including products for voice recording, MP3 audio playback, and wireless communication.
Our only major beef pertains to the overall Palm Computing platform. Aside from Handspring’s limited
improvements, the basic Palm applications–and the Palm OS itself–haven’t changed much since the release of the first PalmPilot. Apple much-maligned Newton allowed for simple entry of such items as “Lunch with Bob on Tuesday,” but the Palm OS offers no such built-in functionality. Handspring’s ability to display to-do information in the datebook is a step in the right direction, but a small one at best. Finally, Palm software still suffers from data synchronization problems between Palm
devices and Palm Desktop 2.x, the synchronization software that you run on your Mac or PC. Handspring is, pardon the pun, hamstrung by the inconsistencies between how data is stored in the Palm OS and in Palm Desktop.
However, unlike Palm, Handspring has included both Mac and Windows software on the CD-ROM that comes with the Visor. If you have a USB-equipped Mac, the Visor should work with it right out of the box. However, when we tried a prerelease Visor with a USB-equipped Mac, we were unable to get it to work–perhaps a sign that the Visor’s USB driver software for the Mac OS isn’t quite ready. With any luck, Handspring will have corrected this problem before the product’s debut.