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Where's the WiFi, Palm?

Dan Jones
LR Mobile News Analysis
Dan Jones, Mobile Editor

There's still one conspicuous hole in Palm Inc. 's smartphone line-up, despite the fact the company now has a Windows model and has linked up with BlackBerry 's BlackBerry mobile email service.

There's no dual-mode Treo smartphone available that combines cellular calling capabilities with WiFi connectivity. Dual-mode is one of the new hot-button issues for smartphone makers, and vendors from Audiovox Communications Corp. (Nasdaq: VOXX) to Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) have -- or will soon -- bring phones to market that can support both network types. (See Cisco, Nokia Team on FMC and Who Makes What: Mobile Devices.)

Palm has sketched no roadmap for integrated WiFi in the Treo. The company's CEO, Ed Colligan said on the firm's latest earnings call in March that the firm will offer three more Treo phones this year that offer "choices among radio technologies," without going into further detail.

A spokeswoman for Palm wouldn't comment further. "I can't talk about products that Palm may -- or may not be -- working on," she told Unstrung.

John Waller, founder and president of Silicon Valley Palm Users Group says that the lack of integrated WiFi support has long been an issue for users.

"We've been asking it for years, asking why it isn't on the Treo," he says. "Eventually you just get tired and give up."

WiFi capabilities on the phone would be useful even for data transfer, according to Waller. "If you're in a hotel that has free WiFi then that's a faster download than over the phone [network]," he says.

Palm and other third parties do sell separate WiFi sleds that connect to the phones, but they don't find favor with Waller. "That makes the Treo into a brick," he comments.

Analysts have their own theories about why the Treo hasn't yet gone WiFi. "I think the primary problem is how to make the Palm OS handle both radios and switch back and forth," says Jack Gold of J.Gold Associates. "If you have a WiFi Treo, you will want to be able to do VOIP as well as make a cellular call."

Meanwhile, Charles Golvin at Forrester Research Inc. thinks that the company just has the interests of its carrier partners in mind. "They had a lot of trouble with the early Treo because they couldn't get it into the operator channel, and their subsequent success is in large part due to the embrace of the operators," Golvin writes in an email reply to questions. "I think they've learned that lesson and now take operator requirements as a more important element in their product planning -- and operators are, by and large... not as gung-ho on the whole cellular-WiFi thing as one might imagine." (See Cisco/Moto Deal Dies.)

"I would, however, expect the next iteration of the Windows-based Treo to include WiFi," the analyst adds.

And the WiFi issue isn't enough to make Waller quit the Treo, even though he uses a Windows Pocket PC device for mobile WiFi browsing. "I love it," he says of the Treo. "It's a great one-thumb device." — Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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