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Sharp Sees Advantages in Linux for Zaurus PDA


Could this be the time for a hand-held computer running Linux as its operating system?

Sharp Electronics Corp. certainly hopes so. Last week the firm introduced its Zaurus SL-5500 Personal Mobile Tool, due to hit stores in early March.

Built around Intel Corp.'s StrongARM 206-megahertz processor, the device includes 64 megabytes of standard memory, an MP3 and MPEG-1 multimedia player, a built-in voice recorder and a high-resolution color screen.

The device is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery.

A price hasn't been determined, but Steve Petix an associate vice president of the firm, said it would be in the range of Pocket PC devices such as the Hewlett-Packard Jornada 560 and the Compaq iPaq. That puts it at about $550 to $650.

Although Linux is widely touted for use as a network and Internet Web server, it can be a good operating system for small devices. Several set-top-box manufacturers have proposed using Linux, and other firms are eyeing the software to control vending machines, ATMs and other devices.

Sharp's Petix said Linux has a much smaller "footprint" on the hand-held than does Microsoft's Pocket PC 2002 operating system, leaving room for more programs and more user data.

Sharp's marketing director, Randy Dazo, said using Linux is less expensive than licensing Pocket PC software from Microsoft. Also, Sharp wanted an operating system that could be used on several different devices, including cell phones and digital TVs.

Danika Lewis, a Sharp product manager on the Zaurus line, said separately that the firm is working with 1,500 third-party software developers to create applications for the hand-held.

The Zaurus SL-5500 in many respects resembles a Pocket PC. The large color-display screen and "hot buttons" on the front of the unit quickly start key applications. The Zaurus comes with programs to view, edit and write Microsoft Word and Excel files.

There's also an e-mail program and a contact manager that Sharp says will synchronize flawlessly with Microsoft Outlook.

Slide down the lower portion of Zaurus' front cover and a small, thumb-friendly keyboard is revealed. The keyboard can be used to compose quick e-mails and other text messages.

Such keyboards have become popular thanks to devices such as Research In Motion's BlackBerry and usually are a $50 optional add-on for iPaqs and similar hand-helds.

The Zaurus includes a CompactFlash slot for a wireless modem or a local area network antenna. There's also a Secure Digital Memory Card slot where extra memory can be added.

In a demonstration by Sharp--a unit was not available for individual testing before press time--the Zaurus seemed capable of all the functions its makers claimed, such as playing music, handling digital photos and wireless communications.

Sharp's Lewis said she has been using the synchronization software for several weeks without a problem, but there was no independent way for me to assess the synchronization with Outlook.

David Hayden, a Palo Alto mobile-computing consultant, said he does not expect Linux to be an issue for companies that decide to buy the Zaurus.

"Sharp has the best PDA hardware and a very good plan to entice developers and create solutions for enterprise customers," Hayden said.

"At the end of the day, it doesn't become an operating-system issue but a holistic PDA solution," he said.


Mark A. Kellner is a freelance technology writer and hosts "Mark Kellner on Computers" at from 5 to 6 p.m. Thursdays. He can be reached at

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