While many saw the Pocket PC launch as Microsoft’s third try to mount an attack on Palm, to me it looks more like attempt number six after Windows CE (the Handheld PC), the color H/PC, the Palm-size PC, the Handheld PC Pro, and the Palm-size PC color. How did v6.0 go?
Here are the three phases of a product launch: Prior to launch the industry becomes quiet as manufacturers create new products, developers prepare new versions of their software and consumers close their wallets awaiting the arrival of the rumored new models. This first phase is a busy one for the press as we’re trying to get details from manufacturers and developers on the products and services they plan to make available at launch. At the actual launch we observe customer reaction and try to gage the impact the new device will have on the market. Finally, after the launch, there’s a period of relative silence as new developers begin work on software for the platform and we await the sales numbers for the new devices.
Since we’ve now completed the first two stages of the Pocket PC launch phase, its time to review the process and rate Microsoft’s latest effort to gain on Palm. While last issue I criticized Microsoft’s feeble retooling of the Windows CE interface, there can be no argument that Redmond staged its most successful handheld OS launch to-date.
The steady stream of information on Pocket PC applications leaked to the press since January left no doubt that Microsoft finally realized that constant communication is a key aspect of a successful product launch. From the PR agency’s quick response to even the most difficult questions, to the hardware vendors working closely with us to ensure we had the latest product information and review units, reporters were kept well informed. Even after the launch information kept flowing. I caught a web-audio interview with product managers from Microsoft, Compaq and Hewlett Packard that elaborated on the Pocket PC platform as a powerful communications tool with great expansion capabilities. Microsoft clearly presents a unified “Pocket PC team” approach to the public.
What be might even more important than the communication focus is the relatively humble tone Microsoft has wisely taken in launching this product. At the Pocket PC launch at New York’s Grand Central Station, Steve Ballmer began his speech with “This is an important day for us and a very, very important launch,” but quickly moved on to where Windows CE had been lacking: user interface, easy-to-use PIM functionality, expansion option deficiency and lack of market share. Microsoft also held the launch until two of the hardware partners—Casio and HP—were ready to ship. And Microsoft supported the hardware with new software. Buy a Pocket PC and you receives a free copy of Microsoft’s Fun Pack.
Another critical part of the Pocket PC rollout was the web strategy. While anyone could have put up a web page or even a mini-site, Microsoft launched www.PocketPC.com, a huge online resource designed exclusively for potential buyers and Pocket PC users. The site features Windows CE coverage from around the world, “How-To” stories to get you up-and-running with your new Pocket PC, and a news section featuring highlights from other Pocket PC hardware and software developers. Microsoft also offers a “refer a friend” incentive program, the availability of MS Money (desktop) for US$9.95 and more special offers on the site. In addition to Microsoft’s own site, there are a number of other sites from both well established and start up companies. The Handango handheld computing portal created a mini-portal for the Pocket PC and Beyond.com developed a Pocket PC store and launched it with a free copy of Microsoft’s Minesweeper program. All this amounts to a display of integrity on Microsoft’s part. There’s substance here, not just hype and product marketing.
Another laudable aspect of the launch support program was and is Microsoft’s support of developers. From all the reports I’ve received from the 3rd party development community, Microsoft receives straight As for their level of guidance and support. As evidence, quite a few software applications were already available for the Pocket PC when we received our press briefing in Washington over a month before the Pocket PC launch. Even AOL, one of the slowest software developers on this earth, had a demo version of AOL for Pocket PC running at the briefing. And even more applications were shipping when the Pocket PC launched on April 19th. Now the only question is, after such a stellar launch will developers continue to create applications for the Pocket PC?
No one knows what the future holds for the Pocket PC, but Microsoft certainly has done its part. In the audio-web interview I referred to earlier, Elaine Gasser of Hewlett Packard mentioned that the Jornada Pocket PC is “flying off the shelves,” a report I’ve heard supported by many in the industry and experienced myself when trying to purchase one for my father, only to find almost every retailer is out-of-stock. So, with all the evidence presented, I don’t think anyone can argue that Microsoft has pulled it off with great success.