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Palm gets back to basics

Zire PDA shuns high end to chase lucrative mass market

It seems that Palm isn't keen for PC Advisor's Test Centre to get its mitts on the latest addition to its line up, the first in the company's Zire range of consumer 'lifestyle' devices. Trouble is, we dinosaurs of IT — the PC magazines — might dare to compare it to other PDAs (personal digital assistants) on the market, according to Palm's PR firm.

While we thought that was our job, apparently this device is different. It's a "completely new proposition" claims the PR spokesperson, being "the most basic unit" which, one assumes, Palm fears would leave it vulnerable under PC Advisor's harsh scrutiny.

But putting our pique aside, the Zire certainly looks pretty enough to appeal to the style-conscious lifestyle market. It has the air of a Mac product about it, with a slick white-and-silver finish. The price should also appeal as it costs a penny under £90. That's still not a great deal for UK consumers, though, as it is a shade over £62 ($99) in the US.

What you get for your money is a compact device that weighs 108g and is just under a centimetre — 74mm — thick and 112mm long. But Palm is right: the hardware specifications are nothing to write home about. It has just 2MB of RAM, with no means to expand, a 16MHz Dragonball EZ processor and a 160x160 mono display.

This looks like a step backwards away from the functionality that we had come to expect in the PDA space, with no expansion slot or wireless connectivity. But this was a deliberate choice on the part of Palm as it is marketing the Zire as a glorified diary, aiming to attract those currently using a paper-based model. Its target market is "active parents, overwhelmed students", according to Palm's marketing material.

It should come as no surprise that Palm is trying to shift its business into the mass market. IT analyst Gartner announced a decline of 3.5 percent in the PDA market since 2001 and competition against Pocket PC devices is tough at the top end of the market. Indeed Gartner also anticipates that Palm will lose ground to its Pocket PC competitors in the coming months, so perhaps the launch of the Zire into a non-IT market is a sensible rearguard action.

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