A San Francisco-based law firm has filed suit against Palm Inc. and its former parent company 3Com Corp., claiming that a feature used to stream data between Palm’s personal digital assistant (PDA) devices and personal computers can cause damage to the PC’s motherboard.

It’s possible the problem could affect school districts across the country that use both Palms and PCs, plaintiffs in the lawsuit contend.

Pinnacle Law Group filed the lawsuit last month in San Francisco Superior Court, claiming that Palm and 3Com, both based in Santa Clara, Calif., failed to warn users that Palm’s synchronizing feature, called HotSync, has the ability to damage certain models of PCs. Some Palm users reportedly have complained of having to buy a new motherboard for their computer because of the damage.

The suit reportedly stems from a complaint against Palm registered by two California owners of the handheld devices.

“A friend of mine knew someone who had had some problems and he contacted me,” said Andrew August, one of the lawyers who brought the suit against Palm. “We started doing some investigation, went on a number of web sites and chat rooms, and found out this is not an isolated incident. The rest is history.”

Lawyers for the plaintiffs are seeking class-action status for other users in the United States who bought certain models of the Palm devices. Palm III-series and Palm Vs reportedly are affected. Lawyers representing the plaintiffs say they believe the newer generation of Palm devices might not be affected.

It’s unclear how large the class action suit will be. Lawyers representing the Palm users say it might be months before they know exactly how many plaintiffs are involved.

“My suspicion is that it is potentially within the hundreds of thousands,” said August. “If you factor in the class of people who have not suffered any damage to their computers yet, it may be in the millions.”

Once the story became public, the law group received somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 to 200 unsolicited eMails from Palm users who have had similar problems, August said.

The suit charges that the HotSync feature can disable the serial port on some PCs.

“Evidently, a static charge can be delivered through the Palm cradle and cause the serial port to fail,” said Rob Enderle, vice president of desktop and mobile technology for Cambridge, Mass.-based Giga Information Group. “This failure results in a PC that will not start up and needs significant work—[namely] motherboard replacement—to repair.”

The allegedly defective Palms have been sold since 1999, and International Data Group reports that the law firm estimates “hundreds of thousands” of users might be affected by electrostatic discharges (ESD) that potentially could cause harm to PCs.

“In essence, we are saying that Palm knew about electrostatic discharge and either failed to adequately design the cradle, or at minimum failed to warn users sufficiently [about] what steps they need to take to minimize damage from electrostatic charges,” said August.

It’s a problem that August and some upset Palm users say the company has known about for quite a while.

The Palm web site’s support pages feature a searchable section called “Knowledge Finder.” Typing in the keyword “ESD” brings up two articles, one of which specifically states: “Any electronic equipment that contains an external entry point for plugging in anything from cables to docking stations is susceptible to entry of ESD. Even a small amount of ESD can harm circuitry, which, in this electronic age, operates at very low voltages.”

Despite this admission, the Palm web site also states: “Palm Inc. is not aware of any defect or inherent flaw in Palm products that may routinely damage computer serial ports. Static electricity is a natural occurrence that can be prevented through sound usage habits, such as always grounding yourself before touching any electronic device. Palm Inc. meets or exceeds all standards for [ESD] protection.”

It’s true that any kind of peripheral device can convey static electricity, conceded August.

“But how many times in the course of a year do you plug or unplug a keyboard or mouse? Infrequently,” he said. “The handheld PDA’s whole reason for being is to put information in and out of the PC and take it with you. The notion that the computer manufacturer should do something, and not the handheld manufacturer, does not make sense to me.”

The lawsuit seeks monetary damages of an unspecified sum, as well as an order requiring Palm to warn users that its PDAs potentially could harm their computers.

“The remedy for this issue has yet to be determined,” August said. “Right now we are just trying to get a handle on how many class members there are and what the extent of the loss might be.”

Pinnacle first heard of the problems occurring with PCs from Dell Computer. However, following media reports about the suit, the firm has received eMails from people who also have mentioned the problems occurring on systems from Gateway, Compaq, Toshiba, and Apple, August said.

Although it’s true that the majority of Palm users reporting computer damage have owned Dell machines, August said people shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that this is because there is something wrong with Dell PCs.

“They control 33 percent of the PC market,” he said. “Just by sheer numbers it may occur more with Dell.”

A Palm spokeswoman told eSchool News that Palm is not aware of anything in its products that could cause ESD, nor is the company aware of any damage that could be caused by its HotSync feature.

“We believe we have protected our devices in order to neutralize any ESD that may be introduced into them,” said Palm spokeswoman Julia Rodriguez.

Giga Information Group’s Enderle said Palm users who wish to use their handheld’s HotSync feature should take some simple steps to avoid electrostatic discharge.

“We have issued an advisory that if users have Palm devices connected to a serial port, they [should] buy a relatively inexpensive surge protector for that port just to be safe,” he said.

“My best advice to any organization planning a large purchase is that they be aware of the potential effects of ESD and take the precautions to prevent damage,” August said. “I want Palm to admit that electrostatic discharge is a problem and then take measures to warn consumers about the issue.”

Links:

Pinnacle Law Group
http://www.pinnaclelawgroup.com

Palm Inc.
http://www.palm.com

3Com Corp.
http://www.3com.com

Palm Knowledge Finder’s “Information on Static Electricity, ESD, and the Palm Handheld”
http://205.141.210.148/SRVS/CGI-BIN/WEBCGI.EXE/,/?St=58,E=0000000000014411087,K=6480,Sxi=6,Case=obj(8009