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Not so long ago, the big word for technology investors across the land was "software." Then, with the advent of the Internet, it was "connectivity" and, for a short while, "content."

During the bear-market years, the dictionary went blank, and the word for tech investors was "mud." But in recent months, in a manner so stealthy as to be more murmur than shout, the word for tech investors has come to be "device."

Treo Tips It In

The latest device to make headlines has been my favorite handheld, the Treo 600, which is made by

palmOne

(PLMO)

. I

wrote favorably about the stock earlier this month when it was trading lethargically around $21. On Monday, the company announced blowout earnings, and shares were up nearly 40% Tuesday to crest around $30.

This shouldn't have come as a big surprise to anyone paying attention to technology trends of the past year. Of the 15 top-performing tech stocks this year, five are device makers:

Taser

(TASR)

,

Sierra Wireless

(SWIR) - Get Report

, palmOne,

Research In Motion

(RIMM)

and

Apple

(AAPL) - Get Report

. In a flat to slightly down market, these stocks are up 50% to 150%.

Their performance shows that technology buyers today appreciate the form, or packaging, of their bits as much as the bits themselves. There really is nothing very special about the technology in an iPod, the device that has pushed Apple to three-year highs. It's one of many hunks of plastic and metal capable of piping high-quality music, in an industry-standard format, through headphones.

What's cool about the iPod is the delicious way it feels in your hand, its balance and softness, coupled with a delightful finger-operated wheel for choosing songs and changing the volume. None of this is software; it is sort of a soft-touch hardware that makes Apple's rather mundane technology intimate and personal.

Likewise, the Treo 600, which is in large (but not exclusive) part responsible for the palmOne's success in the past quarter, has pretty mundane software inside. But the form factor -- the device itself -- is so cool-looking that even technology-jaded professionals will stop you on the street to ask about it.

Yet the Treo has much more than looks. As I reported in my last piece, it is the first multi-use handheld that actually works great in all of the categories in which it competes: It's a great phone, email device, Web-access device, calendar, address book and MP3 player. The thumb keyboard works much better than you'd expect. The only thing it's not very good at is taking photos; that feature is at least modestly acceptable, though there's much room for improvement.

Today's Special

You can look at the news stories for the reasons why palmOne jumped a bunch today. But the real reason, in my opinion, is that devices are the flavor of the year for tech investors. We all know that they won't be the center of attention for long, but the short term can last longer than you think.

Most of the news stories today note that competitors are en route with Treo- and Blackberry-killers. My point is: Where have

Motorola

(MOT)

,

Nokia

(NOK) - Get Report

and

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

, et al, been until now? Nowhere. They have failed to design such cool and useful devices, much less manufacture them, market them and keep them stocked. And it may be a smarter move to wager that they'll continue to fail, rather than to bet they will suddenly succeed.

At the moment, palmOne shares are probably overbought, though you can never tell how far a mania will take prices. (Just look at Research In Motion and its fabulous and ubiquitous Blackberries, which so many pundits said for so long were merely a fad.) But on pullbacks later this summer, the Treo maker will be a good one to put in your pocket.

At the time of publication, Markman was long Microsoft, although positions may change at any time.

Jon D. Markman is publisher of

StockTactics Advisor, an independent weekly investment research service, as well as senior strategist and portfolio manager at Pinnacle Investment Advisors. He also writes a weekly column for

CNBC on MSN Money. While Markman cannot provide personalized investment advice or recommendations, he welcomes column critiques and comments at

jon.markman@thestreet.com.