In this 2002 article from the PMN archives, Marek Pawlowski and Sandra Vogel look at the Sharp SL5000D, a mobile device which, with the benefit of hindsight, foretold much of what was to come in the next 7 years. With its slide-out QWERTY keyboard, open Linux OS and Trolltech’s Qtopia UI and applications platform, the Sharp device was way ahead of its time. Marek reviews the device, while Sandra spoke with Mark Klein, at the time Sharp’s Marketing Manager for Mobile Devices.
Originally published in 2002… Flash back to 1993 and you would have seen four products on the display counter of any London electronics retailer – the Apple Newton, HP100, Psion Series 3 and Sharp Zaurus. These four ranges dominated the nascent market for consumer handhelds in Europe. Each was distinct in its feature set – the Newton relied on its troubled handwriting recognition and large screen, HP offered DOS compatibility, Psion married a keyboard with its sleek clamshell design and Sharp opted for proprietary IC expansion cards, a keyboard and a touchscreen. Strange as it may seem in today’s world of Compaqs, Palms, Handsprings and Sonys, Sharp was once one of Europe’s major handheld manufacturers.
Even after it withdrew from the market when it was overrun by Psion and Palm in the mid-1990s, Sharp continued to sell its Zaurus range in Japan, where they have remained extremely popular. While Europe and the US were contented with the monochrome screen of the PalmPilot, Sharp’s Japanese customers were enjoying high resolution colour screens and digital imaging courtesy of a diverse range of Zaurus palmtops.
Last year Sharp announced that it would return the Zaurus brand to the international stage. A steady stream of news revealed more and more of the device’s specifications – it would use the Linux OS in preference to Sharp’s proprietary operating system, the processor would be the popular StrongARM SA-110 and it would be capable of running rich multimedia applications. Sharp was carefully generating a buzz and enthusiasm for a device which it predicted would sell one million units in the first year.
However, as with all new devices, Sharp realised the success of the Zaurus would be reliant on the existence of a large third party development community. Without commercial and enterprise applications, the Zaurus would be little more than an organiser with some impressive multimedia features. Hence the choice of the Linux operating system and the inclusion of Jeode’s Java virtual machine (JVM), instantly opening the platform to a huge and active community of programmers. It was no surprise then that Sharp chose to give developer’s early access to its new device with the release of a special preview edition – the Sharp SL5000D. In this special two part article, I will be reviewing the device and Sandra Vogel talks to Mark Klein, Sharp’s Marketing Manager for Mobile Devices.
Presented in a sleek silver casing, the new Zaurus is arguably one of the best designed handelds I have seen. Sharp is renowned for the quality of its industrial design, from minidisc players to televisions, and the SL5000D is a proud descendent of this tradition. It shuns the current mode of organic, rounded edges in favour of a hard, rectangular appearance which seems to demand attention from onlookers. The sweeping recess beneath its screen and the shiny, circular joypad balance the angular corners of the casing, adding to the overall impression of a quality piece of consumer electronics.
The opaque plastic flip which covers its screen is one of the weaker design elements. I understand the need to protect the screen from scratches, but I soon pulled this off and discarded it. It slows access to the device and the murky plastic prevents you from making a quick reference without having to open the flip. As a general point, I find the screen protection of all tablet devices sadly lacking. Invariably it seems to have been tacked on as an afterthought; surely there must be a screen coating which can be applied to prevent scratches and circumvent the requirement for those horrible faux leather (think Palm V) and plastic flips? Or at least a way to integrate the flip into the design of the handheld and have it serve a purpose, as with Ericsson and Motorola mobile telephones? Ideas, anyone?
It is, however, easy to forgive such quirks when you realise the sleek exterior of the Zaurus hides one of the smartest pieces of mobile design I have seen for some time. The casing below the screen slides away to reveal a small thumboard, similar to that found on the RIM Blackberry e-mail pager and a growing number of Palm and Pocket PC accessories. This is a hugely welcome addition to the device and beautifully integrated without adding to the external dimensions of the handheld.
The keys are just far enough apart to make for rapid composition of short e-mails. Obviously in an ideal world the handwriting recognition software would work faultlessly, but in reality a keyboard remains the quickest way to enter anything more than few letters. By providing users with the option of both, Sharp has delivered all the benefits of the palm form factor and the keyboard input more frequently associated with larger clamshell palmtops.
Overall, the man machine interface is excellent. Hardware buttons are provided for everything from pulling down a menu to launching the e-mail application. There are also separate indicator lights for the arrival of new messages and battery status. The quality of the hardware really is quite exceptional, on a par with the iPaq in terms of robustness and well ahead on innovation. There are CompactFlash and SD slots, an IO port for cradle docking or third party accessories, an IR port, headphone jack and power input. Sadly it lacks an external speaker, which limits multimedia usage to the privacy of a pair of headphones.
The 320 x 240 screen is bright and clear in virtually all lighting conditions, as well it should be – Sharp is one of the world’s largest suppliers of LCD displays. The stylus feels smooth on the glass when navigating applications or writing text, but it did seem to lack some of the ‘give’ which makes the screen of the iPaq and some Handspring Visors so much more pleasureable for input. That said, Sharp’s inclusion of hardware ‘OK’ and ‘Cancel’ buttons and a five way joypad limit the requirement for screen contact.
When powered on, the SL5000D presents a familiar PDA interface, with rows of small icons and many interface elements which will be familiar to Windows users. Trolltech’s well constructed Qtopia GUI does much to hide the complexities of the Linux OS from the user, but as a developer unit, the current Zaurus provides command line access to the operating system and can occasionally shock you with a black and white terminal screen when inserting a CompactFlash card or reseting.
I will stress again at this point that the 5000D is intended for developers and those expecting a commercialised business tool will be disappointed by the rough edges still visible throughout the software. It is supplied with essentials such as a calendar, address book, notepad, e-mail client and a web browser, but many of these applications have an unfinished appearance and key features are lacking. For instance, there is no integration between the e-mail application and the address book, meaning that you have to manually re-enter e-mail addresses when creating a new message. Similarly, the notepad is basic in the extreme, with no features other than storing small amounts of text.
Even making allowances for its status as a work in progress, I felt the operating system let down an excellent hardware configuration. Although the main application launcher of Qtopia’s graphical interface is easy to use, the other core applications are confusing and counter-intuitive – a world away from the expert simplicity of the Palm, or even the improved Pocket PC 2002. Only Opera, the web browser provided by the third party developer of the same name, comes up to expectations, offering advanced and secure internet access, with a range of zoom levels to suit the small screen.
The multimedia player is also less cumbersome than the other applications and performed admirably with MPEGs and MP3s, but it still lacked the finesse of, say, Microsoft’s Pocket Media Player. Obviously the idea behind choosing a Linux and Java combination is to open the platform up to third party innovations and hopefully replacements for the current generation of PIM applications will be forthcoming. Javanoid, a game included to demonstrate the capabilities of Jeode, shows the potential of rich Java applications; a spreadsheet is also among the first third party programs to emerge on the web.
Synchronisation is very shaky at the moment. Sharp includes Pumatech’s IntelliSync, which correctly matches data when syncing with desktop applications such as Outlook, but it is let down by cradle connectivity issues. At present, Windows 2000 users must ensure the SL5000D is in its cradle and powered on when booting the desktop, otherwise Sharp’s desktop components will fail to recognise the connection. This prevents even simple tasks like downloading an MPEG to the device, let alone syncronisation. Palm and Pocket PC users accustomed to one button sync operations will find it a rude awakening. Melissa Barker from Sharp’s UK press office advises that resolution of the syncronisation problem is a ‘top priority’ for the commercial release of the SL5500 in Q2 2002.
Expansion cards also seem be something of a lottery at the moment. A CompactFlash modem worked faultlessly, as did an 802.11b Wi-Fi card, but several memory cards caused the operating system to crash. The list of supported devices is growing each day, but the problems underlined a wider issue of patchy communications support. The IR port is disabled on the developer models, awaiting a ROM upgrade. This prevents you from using a mobile phone for GSM or GPRS connectivity. Bluetooth is also out of the question. Indeed, in its rush to support 802.11b networking, Sharp seems to have forgotten all about the need to communicate outside the corporate campus.
And still it is hard not to love the Zaurus’ design and admire Sharp for its individualism and determination to compete in an already crowded market. Unfortunately it is the unique choice of operating system which seems to be holding back a superb piece of kit. Dare I say it, but if the SL5000D ran Pocket PC, Palm or Symbian, I think it would stand a much greater chance of success.
The commercial edition, the SL5500, is scheduled for release shortly. Sharp has setup an excellent feedback loop with the development community and I am hopeful that many of the issues raised in this article will be resolved when the device hits the streets. Indeed, there have already been a number of interim ROM replacements for those brave enough to attempt their installation. Desktop connectivity, refinements to the PIM applications, support for mobile communications and better stability must be addressed if Sharp wants to compete with the polished offerings from the Palm OS, Pocket PC and Symbian vendors. Still, I will be keeping my Zaurus, if only to throw admiring glances at where it sits on my desk.
Sharp’s SL5000D is the first of what looks like being a new breed of PDA. Not new in the sense that it does anything fundamentally different from other current PDAs, but new in its approach to software development, and by inference to the community it is intended to serve. The key to this is the fact that the SL5000D is based around open source software. At its core are both Linux and Java, two open standards based development tools.
The SL5000D is not a low end data bank, but a fully fledged, powerful PDA. Marek Pawlowski’s review provided a full run-down of the specifications, but it is worth nothing here that at the core of the SL5000D is the same StrongArm processor, running at 206 MHz, that powers the latest generation of Pocket PC 2002 machines. There are expansion slots for both CompactFlash and SD cards, and the display offers 240 x 320 pixels and is capable of 65,536 colours – and remember Sharp is one of the best screen-makers in the world supplying displays to the likes of Nintendo for the GameBoy and various mobile phone manufacturers.
So clearly Sharp is not fooling around with this machine. Indeed Mark Klein, Sharp’s marketing manager for notebooks and handheld devices, indicates that they are doing quite the opposite. “We are creating a new platform with this device,” he says, “and a new paradigm too.”
“We’ve been in the PDA arena for a long time, and have even brought out keyboarded devices based around Windows CE. But more usually we have focussed on our own platforms. Where we have fallen down in the past has not been on hardware or software design, but on the fact that our platforms have been closed. This makes it difficult for software developers. With this device we’ve chosen to use open platforms in the form of Linux and Java. What we want to do is change the way people think about developing for PDAs. The Linux community is huge, and some Linux based software is simply superb. Look, for example, at Apache, the most popular server software in the world. We don’t see why people with such great programming skills shouldn’t have access to a PDA platform. And as for Java – well it is still an emerging platform, but we think it is going to be really strong. It makes sense for us to partner it with Linux and carry our open software ideas through to it.”
One potential problem, of course, with choosing not to go with the Palm or Microsoft operating systems is that both already have a veritable army of programmers, professional and hobbyist, toiling to provide software, and a large back-catalogue from those whose efforts are already available. In this sense, Sharp is starting way back. The good news is that Linux programmers for the PC are plentiful, and turning their hands to PDAs should not be too problematic. To encourage them, Sharp’s user interface provider Trolltech, has announced a software competition, which will run from 4 December 2001 to 11 March 2002. Software can be submitted in five categories: games, entertainment/educational, business, system tools and communications and there are various prizes, including $10,000 for the application judged the overall winner.
This may go some way to plugging the software gap in the short term, though Sharp is going to have to be very supportive of its developer community in the medium term if it is going to get anywhere near competition with the Palms and Microsofts of this world. To that end, Klein has noted that Sharp may get involved in the provision of drivers for hardware if vendors or the developer community don’t get there first, but he is far less committed to the software side of things. Sharp, he told me, is good at design, and so that is where it should concentrate its efforts, leaving the developers to provide applications.
Klein is right about design, which is this case is simply superb. The general quality of the hardware build is very impressive, and the pop-out keyboard is delightfully implemented. The keyboard, incidentally, may well end up being the real motivating factor for purchasers. It is small, and not, Klein here freely agrees with our view, designed for any more than tapping out the shortest of texts. But with always on communications just around the corner, he sees messaging as being increasingly important both for out and out consumers and for what he calls ‘prosumers’ – those who buy a PDA for a combination of work-oriented and personal use. Klein suggests that having a keyboard on hand for various kinds of text message generation, and for relatively low level document editing, is going to be a real boon in the future. The small increase in form factor this requires is something he thinks most users will live with for the increase in functionality. The keyboard is not the only data input method, though. Both soft keyboard and character recogniser are also included.
So how do you get hold of a device? Anybody can buy one right now. The price to UK buyers is £349.99 including VAT, plus £5 delivery. You can only buy from Sharp’s developer web site, though. This is because the device you’ll be purchasing is not retail ready. Marek’s review mentions the key issues, so here we’ll just note that the software, while much of it works, still needs things done to it and gaps plugging. Klein himself is at pains to stress that this is not a ‘pick up and use’ device, but rather one which should only be obtained by people with a more technical leaning. If you aren’t in this camp, then wait for a few months, till the SL5500 appears. That version will be completely finished, and ready for use out of the box. Klein is saying it will be available during the second quarter of 2002.
Sharp is, Klein maintains, the number one organiser brand in the UK, but in reality this status comes from the data bank arena rather than the more sophisticated ‘mini computer’ arena. Their previous offerings in that sector, while extremely impressive as far as this reviewer has been concerned, have never made it into the general consciousness. The exception, their excellent Windows CE handheld already mentioned, second only to Hewlett Packard’s superb keyboarded Jornadas, is simply more evidence that eschewing the ‘big two’ is a brave move.
We like brave at PMN, and we very much like this device. Both Marek and I have played with the developer version, and if what we have seen so far is anything to go by, and Marek’s review provides the low-down, Sharp has a potential winner on its hands. But to convert the potential to real-word success, our advice to Sharp is push, push, push on the software front, and get your own hands dirty here if you have to. Don’t let a potentially superb device languish for lack of third party support.