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Palm aims its stylish m100 at the younger set

At $149, analyst calls organizer ‘a slick little product’

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The company that helped market handheld electronic organizers as a must-have for the corporate set began selling on Monday a more stylish, and less expensive, device aimed squarely at younger buyers.

Palm Inc's new m100 organizer, which has curvy edges, a double-hinged flip top and removable front plate, is the most eye-pleasing model since the Santa Clara-based company introduced its popular Palm series in 1996.

"We're targeting people in school, people getting their first jobs, who are computer-friendly but not experts, and saying 'Here's a product where you can get everything you need right out of the box for $149,' " said John Cook, senior director of Palm's product marketing group.

The light, 4.4 ounce m100 replaces Palm's clunkier IIIe entry-level model. It has a smaller screen and adds a see-through window on the flip lid for telling the time and date — a function that also can serve as an alarm clock.

The device keeps the same 2 megabytes of memory and much of the same software, but adds a "sticky note" feature for those who don't want to learn the graffiti handwriting language. Snap-on face plates sold separately will come in silver, two shades of blue, green and ruby.

Mike McGuire, an analyst at market research firm Dataquest, called the m100 "a pretty slick little product."

The new device has an appeal to those outside of the early-adopter professional set who looked to electronic organizers for their on-the-go benefits, he said.

"The early stages of this market were easy because you were marketing to people who had busy, constantly changing schedules looking for something to keep track of information," he said. "But while other people are busy, their schedules are pretty fixed. It's going to be an interesting little battle to broaden the market for (handhelds)."

Dataquest predicts global sales for handheld computers will grow in the next three years to 22 million units worth $7.2 billion.

Palm has been moving aggressively to fend off competition from devices using Microsoft's PocketPC operating system and Handspring Inc.'s Visor, which was created by the same makers as Palm. Sony also plans to enter the crowded field this fall with its own handheld device based on the Palm operating system.

Palm is responding with plans to revamp the look of its lineup next year, but is moving now to make them more appealing to the fashion-conscious. It today began selling on its Web site "millennium blue" and champagne models of the extended-memory Palm Vx, as well as the next-generation Palm VIIx, which incorporates additional software and memory. The company said it would offer software and equipment to make most of its models Web-enabled.

But the Visor has quickly become a popular Palm alternative. Research firms say it has grabbed a commanding share of sales in the major retail outlets where the two compete. The entry-level model Visor comes with 2 megabytes of memory and sells for $149, but does not include the computer synchronization cable included in the m100's price.

Palm also designed the m100 to work on batteries in an attempt to avoid a shortage of flash memory and other parts that have hurt sales of other models.

Still, analysts say Visor could prove more popular with the technically-savvy shopper because of its slide-in Springboard expansion slot capable of transforming the device into everything from an electronic book to a cellular phone to an MP3 player.

Palm plans to add a postage-size expansion slot to its next generation of devices due next year. But add-ons to the m100 will be made through the synchronization slot on the bottom, a problem that could mar the device's lines.