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What do Madonna, Prince Philip and Lord Young, chairman of the U.K.'s Cable & Wireless telecommunications group, have in common?

All three own Psion Series 3A handheld computers, masterminded by David Potter, 52, founder and chairman of Psion. Launched in September 1993, the Psion 3A has sold more than 500,000 units, and its sales rocketed 77% to $58 million last year from $33 million in 1993.

The 3A is both more powerful and simpler than its 4-year-old Series 3 predecessor, offering double the screen size and a built-in spread sheet.

"We have had tremendous demand," said Mr. Potter.

Psion's share of the palmtop market grew 95% last year to 23.1%, trailing Sharp's 29.4% lead but ahead of Hewlett-Packard, the No. 3 player with an 11.1% share, according to Dataquest. The palmtop market is worth an estimated $1 billion, with 40% annual growth rates. As the only European-based handheld computer maker, Psion commands more than 60% of the European market.

Mr. Potter, a former collegemath professor, believes he stays ahead because he concentrates on the handheld market alone and spends more on development than his rivals, largely on making Psion simple to use.

He has identified three key factors to make a consumer choose Psion over its rivals: size, weight and batteries.

"The Apple Newton [Message Pad] is much too big and chunky, and the batteries don't last," claimed the native South African whose family of five each owns a Psion. "A huge amount of our money goes towards making the Series 3A easy."

Psion can do most things a desktop computer can do. It has an address book, calendar, word processor, spreadsheet, microphone and alarm clock. The Series 3A models retail in the U.S. for between $200 and $600.

Psion launched the Series 3A with PR only, including giving local celebrities free personalized models.

As consumers became familiar with the Psion name, print ads by small local agency Progress broke in early 1994 in the U.K., Germany, the U.S. and other markets. Rather than specific product advertising, the campaign countered negative associations of handheld computers as yuppies' toys. One print ad showed a bulging Filofax next to a stylish, neat Series 3A with the tagline, "1995-2049. Your diary system."

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