Is Handspring's slot a Springboard to success?

As Wall Street digests Thursday's

wild debut of

Palm

(PALM)

, the search is on for stocks that will be swept up in its wake.

One of the companies most likely to enjoy a bump is the still-private

Handspring

.

Founded by the team that invented the original Palm, Handspring sells less-expensive PDAs (personal digital assistants), called Visors, that run on the same operating system as the Palms. The key differentiator (other than price) is an add-on slot, dubbed "Springboard," on the back of each model.

Handspring won't have any problem convincing Palm software makers to support its systems -- using the Palm operating system ensures that the estimated 30,000 Palm developers can run all their programs on a Visor. With that problem solved, Handspring has been courting developers to produce hardware modules to fill the Springboard slot.

Though these developers are, for the most part, still privately held, they could be companies worth watching if you believe that handhelds and the wireless Internet add up to the future. You'll need patience, though. Most of the modules in development are, at best, months from launch.

The ability to add such modules is what sets Handspring apart from Palm. And even though Palm officials claim the company's future is in software, right now more than 90% of its revenue comes from sales of Palm III, V, and VII hardware. For now, Handspring is battling against another hardware company.

When Handspring announced its Visor line early last fall, dozens of companies announced their support for the new PDA entry. Much attention was directed toward the Springboard slot and how people might use their Visors as pagers, digital audio players, GPS (global positioning system) devices, and so on. But nearly six months later, a full generation cycle in PDA years, only four such modules are available: modem, memory, backup and

Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf

-- three mundane utilities and a game.

That doesn't mean companies aren't developing potential killer apps for this slot. At February's

Demo 2000

conference, where high-tech companies debut new products, Handspring showed two Springboard modules that seem custom-made for early adopters (still the primary Palm/Handspring audience).

IDEO Product Development

, based in Palo Alto, Calif., has developed

Eyemodule

, a $149 module that takes photographs, using the Visor screen as a viewfinder. Handspring also showed

Cue Corp.'s

TST Recommends

radio module, which will combine traditional radio and customized traffic and weather reports. It's expected to cost roughly $100, plus the Irvine, Calif., company will require a monthly subscription charge. Both products are scheduled to ship in "the spring": long-time computer-industry followers know this is likely to mean the day before the calendar announces summer.

When talking to Palm and Handspring developers, the most rabid of PDA devotees, the upcoming module you hear mentioned most often is the

SixPak

from

InnoGear

of Gilroy, Calif. InnoGear is planning many modules, among them a one-way pager, but the SixPak combo includes a traditional modem, a cellular modem, a voice recorder and speaker, a vibrating alarm, a flashing LED alarm, and 8 megabytes of additional memory. Before you get too excited about the SixPak, which is expected to cost "less than $200," note this warning from the InnoGear Web site: "We will be announcing order and ship dates over the next few months." In other words, they're still working on it.

InnoGear is one of several companies said to be working on a digital-audio player for the Springboard slot. Most prominent among the others is San Jose, Calif., company

RioPort.com

, a division of

Diamond Multimedia

(DIMD)

, best-known for its first-generation MP3 digital music player. But search the company's sites for information about its module, announced back in September, and you'll come up empty-handed. There may be a killer app for the Springboard slot, but it's not out yet -- unless you really like Tiger Woods.

On a broader level, Palm purists, a group as fanatical as

Apple

Macintosh purists, may scoff at the notion of expanding Palm-like units. The success of the Palm, when compared to Microsoft's competing handhelds based on the Windows CE operating system, has been in large part because the devices perform a limited number of operations quite well, rather than attempt to do everything a PC does in a stripped-down manner. The original Palm design is elegant in its choice of limitations: a Palm-type device that requires you to travel with multiple modules to accomplish a wide variety of tasks might be a bulkier solution than today's PDA customers want. The best-selling Palm unit, after all, isn't the wireless-enabled Palm VII -- it's the Palm V, which is a much smaller unit.

And Palm isn't standing still. Around the same time the Eyemodule for the handspring is released,

Kodak

(EK)

will release a camera that connects to the Palm that promises far better resolution than Eyemodule.

Maybe the best news about the Springboard modules is that they create an environment in which competitors will attempt to leapfrog over each other in pursuit of the next handheld killer app.

Jimmy Guterman runs

The Vineyard Group

, an editorial consultancy in Massachusetts. In keeping with TheStreet.com policy, he does not trade individual stocks. He welcomes your feedback at

guterman@vineyard.com.