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Here Comes New Wave of Personal Digital Assistants

Devices will concentrate on communication rather than computing

PERSONAL digital assistants (PDAs) were supposed to be the new wave of computing - super-mobile and far friendlier than regular computers. It has not turned out that way, however. Apple Computer's Newton and other first-generation PDAs did not live up to the hype.

But now the industry is trying again. The new PDAs will concentrate on communications rather than computing. ``That's where the original PDAs fell short,'' says David Yaun, spokesman for Sony Electronics Inc., based in Park Ridge, N.J. ``They're computers that can communicate. What we're coming out with is communicators with computing capabilities.'' The new Sony devices are expected out in the second half of this year.

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The story is much the same at Motorola Inc. in Arlington Heights, Ill. The company plans to offer its first PDA this summer. ``This isn't a computer per se,'' says Randy Smith, marketing manager for Motorola's Envoy product. ``This is a communicator.'' The 7.5-by-5.7-inch machine will be able to send and receive hand-written and typed messages by plugging into a traditional telephone line, or by infrared link to other Envoys, or by a two-way wireless network.

It is the wireless messaging capability that Motorola says will sell the product. ``Envoy allows you to take your two-way messaging with you,'' says Ron Scheiderer, Motorola's senior business manager for Envoy. So, for example, a secretary can send a message to his boss and know that he will receive it almost immediately wherever he may be traveling in the United States.

At first, messaging will go over Motorola's own Ardis network. But in a year or so, the company says it expects to have Envoy running on other networks, perhaps digitally enhanced cellular-telephone systems. By then, Envoy may incorporate a cellular telephone as well as the wireless modem. Down the line, ``I think voice becomes a very viable product,'' Mr. Scheiderer says.

With a list price of $1,499, the product may face stiff competition. Sony plans to sell its product for less than $1,000, using much the same software as Envoy but without the wireless capability. BellSouth Cellular Corporation's new communicator - called Simon - is scheduled to come out in June at a list price of $899.

Other companies are also entering the fray: Hewlett-Packard, Novell, and Geoworks plan to jointly create a PDA under $500; Compaq and Toshiba also plan to build PDAs around the software standards set by Microsoft Corporation. Apple is revamping its own Newton MessagePad after disappointing sales.

Those poor sales figures do not discourage the new entrants. Compact disc (CD) players started out slow too, Mr. Yaun of Sony says. In each of the first two years, only 35,000 of the players were sold. Now, some 60 million CD players have been sold - half of those in the last two years. ``We know that this is a long-term prospect,'' says Gail Silver, spokeswoman for AT&T PersonaLink Services in Parsippany, N.J. ``We're not going to have a million subscribers the first year.''

PersonaLink will handle messages for the Envoy and the Sony communicators. It will employ software ``agents'' that can be told to send a message to someone's car phone or fax the message to their office. The Motorola and Sony communicators will also allow users to shop electronically, receive daily news, and check plane schedules.

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Will these services be enough to convince mobile professionals to buy? Perhaps, but none of the PDAs will take off until they can send and receive wireless messages inexpensively, analysts say.

``It's not going to grow a whole lot till the communications becomes affordable,'' says Kimball Brown, vice president of mobile computing at Dataquest Inc. in San Jose, Calif. ``Two-way wireless is absolutely key.''

But Mr. Brown does not seem discouraged. ``Essentially, this is not dissimilar to the early '80s in the personal-computer market,'' he says. A number of different machines and operating systems competed for a few customers. Then the personal computer caught on - as the PDA will catch on, Brown says. ``You'll get to the point where you won't be able to do your job without one.''

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