Interview with Mark Kubovich, Founder and President of HandEra, Inc.
By Kathy Smith
Date: September 24, 2001
HandEra, Inc. handheld products offer a unique combination that equip the ease-of-use of the Palm OS with industry standard Type I/II compact flash expansion capabilities. We take a look at this marriage between the proprietary Palm OS and industry standard handheld pc hardware. The TRGpro and the HandEra 330 take a Palm III Powered handheld computer beyond an electronic organizer to a powerhouse with literately mega storage capacity. The Palm OS is the king of kings for delivering an environment right for a personal data assistant. While it does not allow for the expansive uses that the Pocket PC or a handheld pc does, it is very good at doing what it is designed to do. HandEra products enhance that base by giving us something that we are always wanting more of… room to expand. The union of Type I/II compact flash to a Palm III based powered PDA, gives Palm users the ability to keep their snappy electronic organizer and at the same time carry around the knowledge of the world, or whatever else is likely to fit in 1 MB (and up to 1 gigabyte with the new HandEra 330) of storage these days!
I was delighted to find out that HandEra, Inc., a privately owned company, is located in Des Moines, IA. Before marrying into the Razorback family (no I didn’t have to call the Hawgs at the wedding ceremony), I proudly waved the black and gold banner of an Iowa Hawkeye. As I still have family in the Des Moines area, HandEra presented the perfect opportunity to visit home and learn first hand about this company. Mr. Mark Kubovich, founder and president, was kind enough to talk with me at HandEra’s offices about the company and the new HandEra 330.
Amazingly, HandERA continues to produce products that lead all others from competing manufacturers in user satisfaction. What is the “secret to your success”?
1. Innovative products in the PDA market.
2. We target enterprise clients, the ‘Mobile Professional’. We believe that market to a unique market in that we are interested in companies and corporations who are interested in a handheld solution for their offices. Also, we feel that we have a sense for what the PDA user likes (See history of company). About 80% of HandEra 330 sales are in the USA and 20% outside the US. Although we secure contracts through direct sales to large companies we know that 95% of Palm OS devices are purchased by individuals, and that 30% of these are reimbursed by companies.
My family lives here in Des Moines and I am proud to see such a highly respected company from this town succeed. Can you give our readers a little history of the HandERA?
In 1992 a group of 5 engineers created a company, TRG, whose goes was to provide electrical engineer design services. This was a unique company to Iowa. The business was successful and we found ourselves working many many hours. One of the engineers decided to begin tracking his work hours and at that time found that Palm offered the best product for his needs. He became active in the newsgroups and saw that there was a desire by others for a Palm device that had greater memory storage. He designed a memory board and some of the other engineers designed software for that memory board. The company split in 1997 to form two companies. TRG, Inc. and TRG Products, Inc.. This allowed us to continue to focus on engineer consulting activities as well as on TRG Palm products. We licensed the IC device in 1998 to Palm, Inc. The 9-month revenues from this license allowed for the creation of the TRG Pro handheld. We release this product January 1, 2000.
Why the name change?
In 2001, we announced a name change to HandEra, Inc. in 2001. The purpose of our name change was two-fold. First, it allowed us to completely commitment and focus on the PDA market. At that time, we gave up our consulting services. Secondly, the name change provides us with a name that reflects our products and purpose: Hand Era. Our product focus is completely dedicated to the handheld market.
I see that on your website that you list the HandEra management team. I appreciate that you are a Iowa bred company! I have worked in a number of various industries. When I worked for a biotechnology company, the emphasis to the employee was to understand the importance and value of intellectual property. When I worked in the financial industry, the emphasis to the employee through company communications was to understand the importance of privacy of information and financial legislation. Part of the new employee screening process was to be finger-printed and have a background check. When I worked in the transportation industry, the focus was on traffic safety. We had to take a drug test as part of the application process and company communications centered around driving safety. Is there something that is special to the PDA business that you communicate with your employees?
Our central theme is to understand the constraints put on product development and that we must keep in mind the end-user. Our company has evolved from a co-worker, whose interest in PDAs led him to involvement in newsgroups. It’s out of that interest that we designed and developed a successful product that has grown into a viable business.
Are your products still made in America?
The TRG Pro continues to be built in St. Louis.
Because of the higher volumes with the Handera 330 we were forced to look else where for a manufacturer. We chose Samsung in Korea. Samsung produces the HandEra product east of Soul in Suwong, Korea. We have been very satisfied with Samsung’s commitment to quality and volume.
Is the TRGpro/HandERA made at the same plant as the Palm?
Not to my knowledge. Samsung is a very large company with many products and customers.
We live close to the corporate headquarters of Sam’s Club and are delighted to see HandERA’s products stocked on their shelves. How has the relationship with Sam’s Club helped HandEra?
The move to distribute products through Sam’s Club has been a good move. The idea was to distribute to a base of small business users. The TRG Pro and the HandEra 330 are both available through Sam’s Club. One problem, however, has been that Sam’s Club stores display their electronics devices differently at different stores.
(At this point, I had to acknowledge how many different places the electronics display case gets moved just in our local store. We do spend a lot of time peering into that case for new products.)
We are also looking at expand the base of where the end user can find the HandEra 330. As I mentioned before, since 95% of PDAs are purchased by the end consumer, we are looking to make HandEra products available in consumer end electronics stores such as BestBuy, Circuit City or CompUSA.
Compaq’s very successful iPaq is predicted to exceed Palm branded PDAs for the second quarter. Is HandERA concerned about the PocketPC success and is the company considering offering a Microsoft OS driven PDA?
iPAq shows 4% retail share in US changes. The question is where are the other sales going? That is the question that is of interest to us, as we view our product as having a particular focus to the enterprise market. It is interesting to note the announcement between Starbuck and iPAQ.
What do you think about the possibility of PalmOS emulation on PocketPC’s? Do you think it could be a threat for users of products like the Compaq iPaq to soon also have access to PalmOS applications but not vice versa?
Performance is not there. Most users use the built-in applications that are part of the PDA O.S. The PalmOS has about 130,000 Palm application developers that are registered. This includes the individual enthusiast to companies such as Abode who have/are working to get Adobe view going.
Does your company plan to offer StongARM and XScale based PDAs?
I can’t comment on future products, but Palm announced the creation of a new type of licenses that allows for use of StrongArm and Xscale with the Palm OS. Currently, Palm is coded specifically to the Motorola Dragonball.
What do you think of TI’s OMAP platform now that Palm states that it will be one that they will target?
I am not familiar with TI’s OMAP.
Is the Motorola line of Dragonball processors dead?
No. Also, Motorola offers ARM processors and have a viable roadmap for future offerings.
Many HandERA customers overclock your products. How does HandEra view oveclocking?
Well, this does violate test specifications and can result in the loss of data. The Handera is less likely to overclock since the processor is already running at close to maximum.
(Well, at this point I had to ask – You are company of engineers who designed a product to fill the needs of PDA users. Would you overclock?
Mr. Kubovich replied, “Well what’s important to know is that you will at worst loose your data, so we hope have it backup before you start. You cannot burn up the chip like you can in a PC.”)
On another note, there are a number of testing procedures that a PDA must pass before shipping. Some of the more interesting tests are the environmental tests such as the 3 foot free fall drop, 10 times on each side of the PDA. Not recommended for home use
(I have two toddlers who would joyously become test engineers is some one let them drop stuff over and over and over again.…)
Also, PDAs must go through a number of vibration and thermal shock tests. Samsung provides one in-line production test in which the unit is attached and put through a rigorous vibration test for 30-60 seconds by shipping.
(This conversation, while really interesting, made me a little squeamish. It’s too much to imagine my own PDA being subjected to heat, drops and other stresses.)
How does your product benchmark in comparison to rival PDAs?
I believe that the Visor Edge comes closest. The HandEra 330 is faster(see the Palm Speedway scores on right side of page) then most all. One of the reasons is that we used more expensive DRAM to increase the speed. We used EDO Dram which is faster when connected to the Dragonball since there is no cache with the Dragonball processor. Most PDAs use SDRAM.
Who do you see as your biggest competitor?
In terms of numbers, it is Palm. We do see our products as unique, however, in the market place and our customers are not able to get a product that provides our solution.
SD (Secure Digital) expansion cards have many, including us, wary. Sony and now Microsoft with WPA have already shown how invasive, unpopular and questionably legal these new forms of copy protection can be. HandERA chose to include an SD slot. What is your company’s stance on SD and the controversial trend in copyrights management?
Our interest with the SD slot was to add a smaller storage media than compact flash. Feedback from our users indicated that they lost storage expansion when using an I/O device in the compact flash slot. We were not intending to include a digital management control, only to provide users with a solution to short-coming that they found with the TRGPro.
The HandEra 330 is a very impressive product. Does the increased resolution (240x320) pose compatibility problems with traditional Palm (160x160) software?
Not generally. If the application conforms to Palm coding standards, then there will be no problem. Games and other applications that make break because they write to specific areas of the screen would also break on a color device or on Sony’s device.
Is HandERA considering a color version in the near future?
Interestingly, if we look at the new products that have been released in the past year. Color seems to be the way that PDAS are moving. For our products, while they may not provide a functional advantage yet, the trend of consumers to use a PDA as both a business device and a personal device make color a more interesting product feature for us to consider.
Are there plans for thin form factors like the Visor Edge?
Because of our use of a small expansion media, a thin product is viable for us.
With dramatically cheaper Compact Flash prices, using a PDA in double duty as an MP3 player is becoming more attractive. Any plans to add this functionality?
Again, I cannot comment on potential future products.
Some people believe that a convergence of PDAs and cell phones is inevitable. What are your thoughts on this?
A year ago, this would have looked much more promising. As it is, the slow down in the telecom industry will have significant impact on when this device may be developed. The networks are not there to adequately support a device as we see it. 3 G technologies are key to the development of such a device. Minimally a 2.5 G (GPRS) would be required for such a device. The device can be developed today, but network availability makes it not so attractive to the market.
Do you see the PDA market slowing anytime soon?
Yes. Palm has announced a slow down. PDAs are a luxury item, and with the slow down of the economic market, this effects the PDA market. The PDA market is still young, the desire to upgrade versus the desire to purchase your first is probably comparable to the early PC market. Buying a new one is based not so much on a need to upgrade, as a desire to continue to have a better feature set and greater speed.
Do you think Linux has much promise in the PDA market?
Technically, Linux is a good solution, but for us the question is really, who is better at marketing: Palm of Microsoft?
When will HandEra move to USB (or even FireWire – some of the advantages of FireWire being greater bandwidth and the ability to connect directly to digital cameras, hard drives, audio components, etc.)?
Again, I can’t really comment on future products, but 15 months ago USB was not a feature issue for our consumers. Serial seemed the better solution to target enterprises. Firewire is not supported in a small form factor which would impact price negatively.
Since many people inevitably compare the two, how do you think the 330 compares with the new color Sony Clie that has even higher resolution?
Our screen uses the QVGA industry standard screen. We do feel that our particular features that allow the silk screen to be minimized and to allow for landscape display are very attractive screen features.
Is your relationship with Palm different from other licensees, such as Handspring?
No, it is the same. In fact, Palm is structured in such a way that we interact only with the Palm O.S. division. There is another division of the company that is explicitly dedicated to the Palm handheld devices. It is interesting to me that when we interact with the Palm O.S. division that their perception of the Palm handheld division is that it is another customer who licenses the Palm O.S. The Palm O.S. division makes us feel very comfortable that they are aware that they must recognize this other part of the Palm corporation as just another client.
What about your other products, compact flash, memory boards, new handhelds?
The Handra 330 was designed to be compatible with Palm III accessories and devices. Our users expressed a desire for us to provide them with information on where to get accessories and peripherals. We are working to add a portal at www.handera.com that provides a comprehensive list and description of compact flash accessories and peripherals.
I look forward to sharing a review of the HandEra 330 with you at a near future date. It’s nice to go home for a visit to Iowa and be able to drive about a mile to visit with a truly innovative company operating in a global and high-tech industry. Yes, there is more to Iowa than pigs and corn!
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