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Symbol Unleashes a Helper

Betting that enterprise customers are clamoring for a handheld PDA that combines VOIP capability, bar-code scanning, and mobile support for corporate applications, Symbol Technologies Inc. (NYSE: SBL) has unveiled its second "EDA," or enterprise digital assistant.

And with a starting price of nearly $2,200, it's going to take a very enterprising user to afford it.

Essentially a WAN-enabled version of last year's MC50 model, the MC70 was previewed at last week's CES in Las Vegas and will begin shipping in February. According to Symbol director of marketing Mark Chellis, the MC70 is not just a consumer PDA in a hard shell: "We really see this as a new genre, not just something that will bounce off the floor a couple of times and keep working. It's an enterprise-class device built for day-in, day-out getting business done."

For the day-in day-out factor, Symbol has upgraded from "durable" (the MC50) to "rugged" (the new MC70). The MC70 is designed to survive a drop from four feet onto a concrete floor, not to mention millions of button activations and tens of thousands of insertions into its cradle.

As primary outlets for the new device, Chellis lists the field-force automation market: utility workers, meter readers, electrical service personnel, appliance repairmen, and so on. If those sound like relatively low-margin workforces for a device that will retail for from $2,195 to $2,845, Chellis points out that Symbol, a pioneer in handheld barcode scanners, has listened to customers who say they want a new, more versatile device that will go "beyond the warehouse."

Jeff Lem, president of Toronto-based Symbol partner qData, concurs. "Products like the MC50 and MC70 are part of the new generation of voice-enabled devices that will support VOIP initiatives in addition to more standard bar coding deployments," Lem observes, adding that many of his customers want such devices with VOIP capability.

Symbol is selling into the larger market for PDAs that has shown renewed signs of life over the last 12 months. According to preliminary figures from Gartner, worldwide shipments of personal digital assistants hit 15 million units in 2005, surpassing the previous record of 13.2 million, in 2001.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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