Sharp officially launched today its attempt to knock Palm off the top spot in the PDA market and regain its former glory as a leading maker of handheld devices.
While Sharp's marketshare has been all but obliterated in the US and Europe, it remains the leading PDA maker in Japan. However, its standing is being rapidly eroded by Palm and its licensees, and all the PocketPC vendors, including arch-rival Casio. Enough is enough, the company reckons, but how to win back its supporters?
With PocketPC and PalmOS both rejected - not enough differentiation from rival offerings; too high licence fees - the answer is clear: a mix of its own Zaurus operating system, still fairly popular on Sharp's home turf, and Linux for overseas markets.
Java will cement the two, courtesy of British embedded OS developer Tao, which has licensed its Intent Java Technology Edition to Sharp. Intent JTE is a fast, compact hybrid virtual machine/just-in-time compiler optimised for embedded systems. It's also highly portable, reckons Tao, which is why Sharp can get it running quickly on both the Zaurus OS and, later, Linux.
Java provides Sharp with a consistent API for application developers to write to both versions of the new Zaurus PDA. The Linux version will itself form the basis of three different models: a wireless PDA-cum-phone for the European GSM market, and a Palm-style PC accessory and a Sony Clié-style multimedia handheld, both for the US.
Incidentally, Tao's Intent platform also comprises a compact, high performance (according to Tao) multimedia library. Again, it's highly portable, and already runs on Linux. Sharp didn't say so, but the Intent Media Libraries have to be a strong contender as the basis for its multimedia PDA.
Java is important to Sharp because it reckons the basis for Palm's success has been the availability of third-party applications to "make their products more user-friendly", said Yoichi Sakai, general manager of Sharp's telecoms systems group. "We would like to adopt that strategy as well... We hope that Java will be a catalyst for our Zaurus global expansion."
Ultimately, Sharp will roll-out Java across all its communications products, from phones to fax machines to PCs, using it to provide a consistent user interface to all of them. That sounds a bit pie in the sky to us, and indeed, Sharp won't say when all this will happen.
As far as the Zaurus plan goes, its Java implementation, will ship for Zaurus OS PDAs on 4 April. The Linux machines, also going out under the Zaurus brand, will ship next October, according to comments made by Hiroshi Uno, the head of Sharp's mobile systems division, earlier this month.
Uno reckons Java support will allow Sharp to boast over 10,000 applications for its PDA by this time next year, thanks to the 2.5 million Java developers out there. A tad optimistic, we think, and in any case they're more likely to come from all those Linux coders chafing at the bit to get X running on the handheld.
No doubt he hopes that many of them will contribute to the one million unit sales Sharp hopes to achieve by the end of March 2002. ®