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Windows CEntral
March 2003

Let's hope HP's leadership will revitalize the Pocket PC market

To be honest, I really don't like to write this column. Being the anchor piece of Pen Computing Magazine's Windows CE/Pocket PC section, it should be an upbeat update on all that's new and wonderful in the realm of Microsoft's smallest operating system platform. Problem is that there simply hasn't been all that much that's new and wonderful. A couple of issues ago I used this space for a fictional round table discussion between Microsoft and its major hardware partners. I think it was totally on the mark, but, needless to say, no one would officially comment on problems that are plainly there for all to see but that PR departments cannot officially acknowledge or comment on. In the last issue I described one of the latest Palm-based Sonys and contrasted its innovation and terrific implementation with the rather lackluster efforts that we've seen from the Pocket PC camp as of late (and, actually, a good while longer than that). That, of course, didn't win me any new friends at Microsoft's PR contingent whose response basically was, "What do you mean the Palm OS is catching up? Pocket PC is still way ahead of them."

In all fairness, I don't think I did mention the many ways in which Pocket PC remains ahead, but there is simply no denying that the gap is shrinking very rapidly. New products? Advantage Palm. Innovation? Advantage Palm. Screen resolution? Advantage Palm. Variety of form factors? Advantage Palm. And so on. It is scary. Go and compare the new Sony NZ90 with, say, the new Dell Axim 5. The Dell is a nice, bland workmanlike standard Pocket PC, essentially an evolution of what we had last year, and the year before, and the year before that. The Sony, by comparison, is like something from the Starship Enterprise, and not the one from the new series, one of the later, more futuristic ones.

You could, of course, argue that Sony's stunning tour-de-force simply means the Palm camp is becoming increasingly fragmented, with some licensees continuing to build basic PDAs, others departing into the phone/communicator camp, and others yet desperately trying to woo potential buyers with dazzling features and gizmos that simply mean that nothing's compatible with anything else anymore. And there's probably some truth to that. Jeff Hawkins once said that Palms will always be simple whereas Windows CE devices would likely become ever more complex and expensive. Given Handspring's recent disconcerting lack of direction I believe that Jeff's mind is elsewhere these days, but I am certain that he never had a Swiss Army knife boutique device like the Sony NZ90 in mind when he designed the first Palm Pilot.

So why do I feel so uneasy? By now you know my gripes. Pocket PC has fallen behind. The basic OS hasn't been updated in years. Screen resolution and functionality are now out of date. There hasn't been any true innovation or leadership. The recent Phone Edition devices are nice enough and some look very cool, but a) most aren't really available yet, b) they really don't work as well (yet) as a standard cell phone, and c) I want a Pocket PC, not some device that perpetuates the seemingly never-ending quest for the Holy Grail of a convergence device.

And there are some truly boneheaded trends. Take screen size. Even though everyone complains about the dinky little screens on Pocket PCs, most of the newest devices now have smaller screens yet, 3.5 instead of 3.8 inches diagonal. 240 x 320 pixels are not enough to do any real work on a 3.8-inch screen, so why switch to an even dinkier smaller display? I want full 480 x 640 VGA on a 4-inch screen. Such a display would easily fit into the kind of small form factor we've come to expect from a PDA, and it would give us a fighting chance to do some actual web browsing.

Or take the initial Phone Edition Pocket PCs. Given Microsoft's endless delays in actually shipping the smartphone that's been shown for several years now, it was especially important to get it right with the first Pocket PC Phone Edition models. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, they were based on GSM instead of the US-standard CDMA network, thus virtually guaranteeing incompatibility and poor coverage. The T-Mobile Pocket PC was a nice enough device, but between being based on last generation hardware, insufficient GSM coverage, and being serviced by T-Mobile-perhaps the least responsive carrier I have ever dealt with-I can only borrow executive editor David MacNeill's frequently used expletive: "What were they THINKING?!" True, the Samsung i700 and the Hitachi Multimedia Communicator Pocket PC (now there's a mouthful) look like much more acceptable designs. Both have fresh new lines, are built on reasonably up-to-date technology, and can use good old CDMA so that you actually get coverage in most places you go.

Maybe the whole thing is sort of a good news/bad news situation. The good news is that some of the latest Pocket PCs are actually very polished devices. The new iPAQs are great and some of Toshiba's and Viewsonic's offerings provide great value for the money. The bad news is that in many respects they still lag behind what the old Apple Newton MessagePad offered several years ago. The MP 2100 had a fast StrongARM processor years ago, had twice the resolution of a Pocket PC, had dual slots, superb battery life, and never ever lost any data. It also had a screen lid, a terrific backlight, and an OS that was designed from the ground up for a PDA. I can only imagine where the Newton would be today had Steve Jobs not killed it. The good news is that the latest transflective displays used in Pocket PCs are totally terrific. The bad news is that their low resolution makes that almost irrelevant. The good news is that we now have 400MHz XScale processors. The bad news is that the current software cannot use most of its features. The good news is that Pocket PCs now have non-volatile internal data backup. The bad news is that it's usually a manual backup. The good news is that HP continues to provide great leadership. The bad news is that Microsoft's listless meandering resulted in the loss of a most of the early Windows CE supporters. The good news is that Pocket PC batteries have come a long way. They now last longer and they are user-replaceable. The bad news is that some Pocket PCs continue to suffer from truly infuriating power supply arrangements that often require special adapters just to charge the unit outside of its dock. The good news is that Microsoft seems to continue to push ahead with Windows CE or Windows-Powered or CE.Net or whatever the name-du-jour is. The bad news is that there is no direction and much of the innovation now comes from the Palm camp. The good news is the promise of a new version of Pocket PC for XScale. The bad news that we lost almost all of those neat little clamshell CE devices. You get the point.

So here's to hoping things will look up again real soon! -

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

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