I must be the only person in the world who thinks that the real star of "Titanic" is the iceberg. That glacial formation brought out the best and worst of everyone on board the ill-fated vessel and gave the world a story to fall in love with. After all, people are easy to love when they challenge adversity in a moment of chaos and succeed.
Back in 1996, Philips challenged the world in the chaotic emergence of Windows CE. By developing a handheld PC that could only be described as extraordinary, Philips denounced PCMCIA cards and proclaimed voice recording as the killer application for the handheld PC. As we all know, Philips triumphed with the VELO-1 and it became the flagship for success with the first generation of HPCs. But now, after a weak second generation offering, Philips has lost their lead as the creative leader in the Windows CE arena and the next ship to be named "best of class" has yet to be christened.
Afraid to test the waters?
Hardware vendors need to challenge convention and rock the boat with new and exciting concepts for Windows CE. The advent of Gryphon and Jupiter gives us smaller and larger form factors but do not make for true diversity; and while color was a large but obvious step to take, supporting 256 colors is simply a natural extension of the platform. And with the past success of the VELO-1, hardware vendors have an excellent role model to fashion their future after.
Even the Titanic wouldnt have left port without selling a mass of reasonably price tickets. But to reach the masses calls for a radical departure from the current Windows CE offerings – tiny, affordable, application specific systems. Like the Tamagotchi, I would love to see Windows CE in a key ring device that can sell at supermarkets for US$14.99 with support for a single CE function, like downloading your schedule to serve reminders 15 minutes before each meeting. If users need more than one feature, the tiny devices can be attached to each other for easy transport. This level of "impulse buy" adoption is an entirely unexplored personal computing region that has the capability to gain unparalleled levels of adoption.
Microsoft, throw us a life raft!
Microsoft has become the lead developer on every other operating system they have created, but is not pushing ahead with the same steam in the Windows CE waters. While Pocket Streets is a wonderful and pocket-centric program, there are many existing programs that would help evangelize the platform and promote the development of more diverse hardware. Developing micro-sized versions of their popular references like Cinemania and Encarta could make an opportunity for single-use devices to debut. And expanding on CEs Internet support to include Microsoft NetMeeting for Windows CE would create the opportunity for an exciting Internet-based telephony device.
Although not entirely to blame, Microsoft could clearly be creating more opportunities for creating the "über-handheld". Considering how hard the Microsoft machine runs when faced with a challenger, perhaps the Windows CE environment needs a competitors iceberg to slam directly into the hull to make Microsoft realize theres a leak.
Developers to the rescue
Thankfully, masses of third party developers have taken it upon themselves to plug the holes Microsoft has left open. pcANYWHERE, eWallet, and a number of other mobile-centric software applications directly address many of the needs for the handheld computing environment. In addition, applications like PowerTime (see review, this issue) have quickly arisen to cover the new concerns brought about by mobile computing—like the issue of battery life on color devices. This sort of action-reaction is a perfect display of the commitment of third party software houses to develop for the needs of the mobile user, even if the needs arise from hardware weaknesses.
However, part of developing this killer handheld is to deliver it with the killer application too. Philips understood that when they added WAV file support to Windows CE, and the second generation HPCs are leaning toward VGA-out support. And with alliances between hardware and software makers (the latest rage), device-specific applications are easier than ever to develop and ship.
The iceberg cometh
Just as the PalmPilot successfully ventured into uncharted waters with form factor, input method, and unmatched synchronization, rest assured that a new device will make waves with unmatched design and implementation. But will this device arrive in the form of a Windows CE ship or an iceberg with the potential to sink the Windows CE best and brightest attempts? One thing is for sure: although Windows CE has been a large, loud juggernaut for the past year and a half, the rest of the handheld realm has been quiet. Too quiet.
-Dan Hanttula is the platform editor for Windows CE and Magic Cap operating systems and the president of HomeRun Advertising.