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Ericsson's entry revitalizes WebPad scene

Source: IDG - Hanover, Germany

12th Feb 2000

L.M. Ericsson Telephone rekindled interest in the WebPad market here at the CeBIT show with the introduction of the Screen Phone, a wireless Internet appliance for home users.

The Screen Phone links to a user's telephone line or Internet access using Bluetooth short-range wireless connectivity. It provides users with a well-packaged device, allowing users to browse the Web or send e-mails while simultaneously making phone calls from the comfort of their sofa, Ericsson officials said.

Scheduled to ship by year's end, the Screen Phone HS210 is the mobile phone vendor's first cordless Internet access device aimed directly at consumers. Ericsson's announcement has already resulted in other major vendors taking a second look at WebPads, according to Roger SSll, president of WebPAD vendor RS Cordless Technology (RSC), of TSby, Sweden.

"Ericsson's entry made a huge difference; you could say that Ericsson now has legitimized the WebPad category," SSll said. "Suddenly everybody is interested in talking to us again."

National Semiconductor and Microsoft in a joint announcement here said that several vendors, including Taiwan's Acer, Thomson Multimedia and Vestel USA, are also readying so-called MSN-based Web Companions designed around the WebPad reference platform.

National Semiconductor originally introduced the WebPad wireless tablet concept at the Comdex Fall show in Las Vegas in 1998. To date WebPads have remained crowd pullers at trade shows rather than mass market products, but vendors are now defining business models and markets for the devices and getting closer to ramping up production.

RSC, for example, has inked a production agreement for as many as 10,000 units per week with contract manufacturer Selestica and expects volume production to begin in June, said SSll.

"The demand is there already. We could ship thousands of units today, but production has been held back by shortages of screens and memory chips," he added.

RSC is currently in negotiations with several banks as well as Internet service providers (ISPs), and its WebPads will appear on the market under the name of its partners rather than the RSC brand, SSll said.

"Banks and ISPs will be the early drivers of this market. Banks, for example, see WebPads as a device for getting more of their customers to use Internet banking services," said SSll.

Banks may even be willing to give away WebPad devices featuring pre-installed banking applications to its customers for free, while ISPs are looking at business models such as subsidizing the cost of the device to make the initial purchase price more attractive for consumers, he added. Ericsson's Screen Phone, which runs the open-source Linux operating system, combines both Internet access and a speaker phone, and will communicate with a home base station using the emerging Bluetooth technology for wireless personal area networking.

Although still in its infancy, the market for cordless communications devices has a bright future, Ericsson President Kurt Hellstrsm predicted. "We expect the wireless communications device market to within three to five years become as big as the PC market," Hellstrsm said.

At National Semiconductor's stand at CeBIT, a dozen or so WebPad vendors were displaying products based around the chip maker's integrated Geode processors and running operating systems ranging from Linux and QNX to Windows CE.

RSC's WebPad device, for example, features a 10-inch 800 x 600 pixel super VGA touch-screen and is encased in a frame that has buttons for controlling the cursor and other commands. It communicates with a base station over a data communication link based on the DECT (digital enhanced cordless telecommunications) standard, the same technology used by many of today's cordless home and office phones.

The company offers two versions, one for the European market operating at 1.8GHz, another for the North American market at 2.4GHz. Users can type in Web addresses or e-mails with a stylus on a pop-up keyboard on the touch-screen.

Germany's Siemens also used the show here to show off the SIMpad, a prototype WebPad-like tablet device. The SIMpad, the size of a sheet of A4 paper and weighing 1.1 kilograms, offers full Internet access over a cordless DECT connection, Siemens said.

Siemens used the show here to ask visitors to its stand to fill in a survey form about the SIMpad, but the company has no definite shipment plans for the device as yet, officials said.

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