Technology Partnerships Canada has announced a $9.5-million investment in a research and development initiative to advance integrated wireless messaging and modem technology.

The investment by TPC, a special operating agency of Industry Canada that funds strategic research and development, is

part of a multi-year, $33.7-million project being spearheaded by Sierra Wireless Inc. of Richmond, B.C.

Sierra Wireless is “”breaking out of our traditional data-only, data-modem-only business that sustained the company for the first 10 years of its life,”” said Norman Toms, chief technical officer. “”That’s a business that’s still showing great growth, but we think we’ve got to have some more value-added products in order to keep growth and to focus those at the enterprise customer.””

Government partnerships such as these help companies sustain their investments in research and development, without which the markets would punish firms such as Sierra Wireless, said Toms.

The $33.7-million program will cover multiple releases of hardware and software applications. One focus will be the development of a family of handsets like the recently announced Voq Professional Phone, which consists of a handset with a QWERTY thumbpad as well as a personal digital assistant, messaging device, mobile phone and Internet and e-mail functions.

Last year, Sierra Wireless conducted a focus group survey and found professional users had two choices: wirelessly-connected PDAs that were inferior as cellphones or cellphones with “”a reasonable degree of smarts,”” but had certain limitations around keypads, Toms explained. This forced people to carry two devices. They wanted something that would function primarily as a phone and have push e-mail, among other features.

With the changing adoption of air standards and protocols, Sierra realized it had to develop phones over the next few years that will include new technologies and address applications that will work with a higher bit rate over those technologies, Toms said.

In the short term, the broader industry of wireless messaging and modem technology will not see tremendous changes because of this partnership, he said.

But the long-term effect will be marked by the emergence of capabilities like synchronizing people’s personal information managers when they’re in a mobile environment, said Toms.

The market for converged devices with telephony capabilities like handhelds and phones will grow by 20 per cent between 2004 and 2008 because of a greater acceptance of what the technology can do, particularly for companies with mobile work forces, said Eddie Chan, research analyst, mobile and personal computing and technology for IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto.

Keypad and pen-based handhelds that are wireless have declined in volume shipments as products with integrated WiFi modules have jumped to the forefront, Chan said. “”It’s really having a connected device, not just over a wireless LAN network. It’s wide-area network — that’s what everyone wants.””

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