The difference is that BellSouth is disguising its entry as a familiar cellular phone.
BellSouth's cellular, named Simon, will work as a fax machine, pager, calendar and electronic note taker, all wrapped up in an 18-ounce marvel selling for $899.
"Simon's a cellular phone with comput-ing capabilities," explained a spokeswoman for BellSouth Cellular Corp., the nation's No. 3 cellular operator. "Simon's a fact today. Much of what it is, is what it does when you open the box."
Marketed by BellSouth, designed by IBM Corp. and built by Mitsubishi Consumer Electronics of America, Simon will go on sale early next month in 15 states where BellSouth offers cellular service, the spokeswoman said. National expansion is set for May, pending Federal Communications Commission approval, she said. BellSouth at least initially will rely on local cellular systems and retailers for advertising.
BellSouth doesn't plan a national ad campaign, instead relying on its local cellular operators and retailers to sell Simon.
As a smart cellular phone, Simon should have a better chance of early success than other early personal communicators, said Paul Saffo, a technology futurist and director of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif. Eo and Apple Computer's Newton tried to create an entirely new product genre, Mr. Saffo said.
"For a company, the smart [short-term] approach is to embrace the old metaphor," or product package, rather than starting from scratch, he said. But longer term, Mr. Saffo stressed, the market for personal communication devices is wide open, with winning product designs and marketers still to be determined.
"This is a much bigger revolution than the personal computer," Mr. Saffo said. "It's just going to take time."
The problem has been the first products, not the concept. Newton didn't convert handwriting to text as promised, while Eo Inc.'s product, co-branded by Eo/AT&T and built by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., was clunky and overpriced at $2,500.
Eo officials last week said they were working on a smaller, cheaper model designed as a smart cellular phone, more in the mode of Simon. AT&T, Eo's majority owner, is buying McCaw Cellular Communications, the biggest cellular operator, and has a broad line of cellular phones that could mesh with the new Eo.
But Eo has much going against it. AT&T is holding back on pumping in more money and is seeking other investors. Ad spending is on hold, said Iain Woolward, president of Eo agency Woolward & Partners, San Francisco. And critics say the software inside Eo devices is passe, suggesting that no amount of marketing could bring back Eo.
Apple last year spent more than $3 million on ads via BBDO Worldwide, Los Angeles, to introduce Newton MessagePad and an unknown sum on in-store kiosks and other promotions, trying to turn a business product of limited appeal into a smash consumer product. MessagePad floundered. Apple is working on improved models, but they will have to overcome the baggage now associated with the Newton brand. Even inside Apple, executives say, Newton is shorthand for flop.
Early flops, though, don't take away from the category's potential. Most players are hedging their bets, backing multiple technologies in personal communications.
This year's favorite bet for the long haul in personal communicators is General Magic, a software developer backed by AT&T, Apple, Motorola, Matsushita and Sony.
"If I was a marketer trying to make sense of this marketplace," Mr. Saffo said, "I would watch the fortunes of General Magic very closely."
Kate Fitzgerald contributed to this story.