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Windows CEntral
August 2002

A Missed Opportunity

Those who follow the brutal "sport" of boxing and occasionally watch a fight are probably familiar with the following scenario: Two contenders slug it out round after round. Finally one of the two is in the ropes and clearly ready to drop. But instead of delivering the knockout punch, the guy who has the upper hand simply meanders around the ring, perhaps puts in a few half-hearted jabs, and lets the chance slip away. The rattled fighter regains his senses and storms back into action. To me, that pretty much describes the golden opportunity the pumped-up Pocket PC squandered away against a reeling Palm during the past nine months.

Let's take a look at the situation: Last Fall Microsoft rolls out Pocket PC 2002 and it is a winner. All the OEMs come out with terrific new hardware. The Compaq iPAQ 3800 Series, the HP Jornada 560 Series, the Toshiba e570, the NEC MobilePro P300, the Casio Cassiopeia E200-all marvelous, powerful, innovative devices. But there is more. Microsoft announces a number of new Pocket PC licensees. Windows CE and the Pocket PC make significant inroads in the lucrative vertical markets. The long-awaited "Stinger" phone, which combines phone functionality with a subset of the Pocket PC code, seems finally at hand. Intel is about to release XScale, the next generation of the already speedy StrongARM processor. And on the software side there is the release of "Talisker," Windows CE 4.0, officially CE .NET. All together an impressive arsenal of heavy-duty fire power. One that I expected to be launched at Palm, the fleetfooted, nimble challenger that had outslugged mighty Microsoft in the battle for palmtop supremacy round after round after round.

Only, Palm wasn't fleet-footed anymore. Palm was in the ropes, dazed and rattled from the pounding it had taken on just about every front during most of 2001. With its once lofty marketshare melting like butter in the hot sun, shaky leadership that culminated in the departure of several key executives, ho-hum new products, unexpected weakness from former Wunderkind Handspring, stock prices of both Palm and Handspring at historic lows, and an architecture that was running out of steam, Palm was definitely ready to drop. Not drop perhaps as in disappearing from the face of the earth, but certainly as in taking a severe enough beating to once and for all yield any claim to the palmtop supremacy and pass on the crown to Microsoft.

So when Carl Yankowski resigned and Handspring flirted with a descent into penny stock territory, it really was just a question of when and how Microsoft was going to deliver the final blow. And how deadly that blow was going to be to feeble Palm.

But the blow never came.

The Pocket PC presence at Fall Comdex was the least coordinated, least convincing in years. No more Pocket PC booth. Instead, Pocket PC offerings were mixed in with other Windows stuff and pretty much disappeared in the overall Windows lineup. Pocket PCs were virtually invisible at Microsoft partners' booths as well. Palm and Handspring, in the meantime, occupied vast amounts of show floor real estate. Handspring made the absolute most out of the Treo which wasn't even available yet. A missed opportunity for sure.

Next came, well, nothing. Instead of a concentrated effort to promote Pocket PC, Casio pretty much disappeared, Compaq played it very low key with the new 3800 Series, NEC and Toshiba all but hid their new Pocket PCs, and the very nice new Jornada 560 Series from HP went essentially unnoticed against the backdrop of Carly Fiorina's inexplicable decision to swallow up Compaq.

But surely the Microsoft camp was going to take publicity advantage of the introduction of XScale, the new Intel chip that will boost and power Pocket PCs for years to come. Nope. That was a non-event. I didn't expect an unleashing of an entirely new generation of super-powerful Pocket PCs, but why not at least a couple of top-of-the-line models?

The introduction of Windows CE 4.0 was again a non-event. After years of confusion with inconsistent Windows CE nomenclature, "Windows CE .Net" perhaps takes the cake. We presented the goods on it in the last issue of Pen, but how it will relate to Pocket PC is anyone's guess.

Next we have the "introduction" of the Pocket PC Phone Edition. I put it in parentheses because while Handspring milked the Treo for whatever it could, the Phone Edition was unveiled at the GSM World Congress 2002 somewhere in France, and as of this writing no one really seems to know when some of those new devices will make it to the US. And what about the Phone Edition's overlap with Stinger?

So the knockout punch didn't happen. Perhaps Microsoft, under substantial scrutiny for its predatory practices, wanted to play it low key. Perhaps the PDA market is not important enough (yet?) to make a big statement. Perhaps Microsoft feels that victory is at hand anyway and there was no need to rub it in.

Bottomline, boxing fans: our guy didn't throw the knockout punch, instead shambling around the ring, sipping water in the corner, waving to the crowd, and inexplicably ignoring the champ who was panting in the ropes.

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

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