December 2, 1996 10:00 AM ET
Palm Pilot to get airborne
Nikean modems will change organizer into communicator/browser
By Mark Moore

  U.S. Robotics Inc.'s Palm Pilot is growing up--from a pocket-sized organizer to a full-fledged personal communicator--with a little help from a Southern California startup.

San Diego-based Nikean Wireless Devices is readying two small wireless modems that snap into the bottom of the 5.5-ounce Pilot to transform it into a mobile messaging platform. Nikean is developing a proprietary E-mail client and a World Wide Web browser for the device as well, said sources close to the company.

Nikean will demonstrate the Pilot-compatible modems, the E-mail client and the Web browser at the Consumer Electronics Show next month in Las Vegas. Shipments will start in July, sources said.

Founded in the fourth quarter of 1995, Nikean is a privately held company with 19 employees. Its mission is to "greatly broaden wireless data access with different solutions and different parts of the puzzle," said one source close to the company. Nikean officials are currently seeking $4.5 million in second-round financing from venture capital firms. The officials are projecting sales of 23,000 units next year.

Nikean's snap-on modem and accompanying software, called Minstrel, will let Pilot users wirelessly send and receive E-mail messages over CDPD (Cellular Digital Packet Data) networks.

Minstrel also will let users browse the Web and route messages and other text from the Internet to the device, sources said. The CDPD modem is compatible with standard X86-based desktop PCs and notebooks, sources said.

Minstrel will be priced initially at $299, or $249 in volume shipments. The Pilot itself starts at $299.

Nikean plans to offer a $500 bundle that includes a Palm Pilot, Minstrel, an E-mail client and a Web browser, with CDPD service expected to cost about $20 per month, sources said.

At $500, the communications-enabled Palm Pilot would rise to the pricing level of new HPCs (handheld PCs) running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows CE. The low-end Windows CE-based HPCs, which start at $499, require optional Type 2 PC Card modems--priced at more than $200--for wireless communications.

Another Nikean-developed wireless modem on tap for the Pilot is The Page, a $75 snap-on module based on Motorola Inc.'s Flex family of high-speed messaging protocols. The Page will deliver to Pilot users one-way alphanumeric messages, news, stock quotes and other information, sources said.

U.S. Robotics officials in Skokie, Ill., and Nikean officials declined to comment.

Nikean also is exploring developing additional snap-on modules for notebook PCs and personal digital assistants, as well as other wireless networks.

Adding better communications to the Palm Pilot is essential, one user said. "If I could dial in remotely, wirelessly connect and synchronize with my desktop, that would be great," said Frank Calabrese, manager of information technology for Bose Corp., in Framingham, Mass. "I'd also like to hop on a corporate intranet [with the Pilot] and look at any company information over a cup of coffee and my morning muffin."

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