Pocket PC slated for a big move
On the hardware side, most of the major players have switched to XScale. Anything hanging on to the venerable StrongARM is old news and perhaps an indication that the manufacturer does not have enough confidence in the PDA market to move to the new processor architecture. Most of the major players have switched to transflective displays which are hands-down the best Pocket PC displays ever. Unfortunately, some of them are of the tiny 3.5-inch variety as opposed to the much more pleasant 3.8-inch screens that were once the norm.
Sadly, despite some really cool new products, by and large that's pretty much where progress in the Pocket PC arena appears to stop. A comparison to the latest Palm devices is sobering. I reported on the stunning new Sony Palms in prior columns. Now Shawn Barnett, our Palm editor, is gloating over the latest Palm-branded Tungstens that have higher resolution than Pocket PCs, and that are so blindingly fast as to leave any Pocket PC in the dust. It's embarrassing.
I have wondered in past columns what exactly is going on with Pocket PC and found few answers. Yes, there is a good number of very useful Pocket PC accessories and software, especially in the GPS, wireless, and imaging arenas, but we're not where I expected the industry to be by 2003. To get an idea of what is available I ventured to the source--the Pocket PC section of the Microsoft website (www.pocketpc.com)--and found a list of current Pocket PC hardware products. Microsoft provides a map that breaks the Pocket PC world down into The Americas; Europe, Middle East and Africa; and Asia, SouthPacific and Japan.
The good news is that no less than 23 different Pocket PC models are listed as available in the Americas. That's a fine number but it is also somewhat misleading as I found out while perusing the list. Let's take a look.
Six of the listed models are Toshibas. That includes the e310 which I believe is discontinued; the e550G, a very attractive device that Toshiba does not sell in the US; the discontinued first generation e570; the 2032 which has integrated phone functionality but which Toshiba says is not available; and then the two current products, the slimline e330 and the top-of-the-line (at least in the US) e750 with integrated wireless. The Toshiba website only lists the latter two as for sale.
Toshiba's presence, however, doesn't stop there. The Audiovox Maestro PDA-1032 is a rebadged Toshiba e570, the Audiovox Thera a rebadged Toshiba 2032. The Audiovox website indicates both items as "Temporarily out of Stock."
Next we have a number of Pocket PC phones. The T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone, the Gradiente Partner, and the Siemens/AT&T Wireless SX56 are all the same HTC-made, StrongARM-based model we reviewed in our September 2002 issue.
Former Pocket PC champion Casio is listed with a single product, the Cassiopeia E-200, the Wistron-made successor to Casio's glorious NEC VR-powered Pocket PCs. It has been discontinued for a while. NEC -- another company with a grand Windows CE past -- is also listed with just one product, the NEC MobilePro P300. This, too, is essentially a discontinued model. The link goes to NEC England.
Though HP absorbed Compaq, the StrongARM-based Compaq iPaq 3700 and 3800 lines remain listed. They are discontinued. The 3970 is listed as just an iPAQ without any brand affiliation. That is a live product and a good one. The old HP Jornada 560 Series remains listed. They have been discontinued for a while. That left HP's two newer model lines, the H1910, and the flagship H5450. By now, their new models are likely up also.
Then there are two relative newcomers to the Pocket PC landscape, the Viewsonic V35 and the Dell Axim X5 (the X3 isn't listed anymore).
This covers all but two of the listed Pocket PCs. Those are the Zayo A600, a competent Asus design that you can get from MobilePlanet, and the Alaska Cove Mexmal. That link goes to a Spanish language website in Mexico.
Clicking on Asia, SouthPacific and Japan, we find the HTC/T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone available as the xda and the dopod 686. The Zaya A600 becomes the Asus MyPal A600. There are also a few products not available in the US. They are the excellent Fujitsu-Siemens Pocket LOOX, the Eten InfoTouch P600 phone Pocket PC, the Acer a20, and the Mitac 528, an old StrongARM design.
Europe, Middle East, and Africa, finally, once again sport a number of familiar designs under different names. The HTC/T-Mobile becomes the O2 XDA and the Proximus Qtek 1010. The Mitac morphs into the Yakumo PDA alpha, and there is the StrongARM-based Packard Bell PocketGear 2060, a dated device of unknown origin. Europe also gets the StrongARM-powered XP100 by Chinese powerhouse Legend.
What do we learn from all this? First, the number of actual, current Pocket PC designs is not very large. Second, most are made by a handful of Taiwanese companies--HTC, Mitac, Asus, Acer, Compal and a couple more--with HTC taking the lion's share. Japan used to manufacture a lot of its own PDAs and notebooks, but the trend is towards making them elsewhere where labor is less expensive. And that is still Taiwan.
Bottom line? The problem is not one of manufacturing capacity, design talent, or innovation. All of that is available in great abundance. Those Taiwanese companies can crank out incredibly advanced designs that would leave any Palm in the dust. But why should they? Many were burned by Microsoft's cryptic course in the Windows CE arena and became reluctant to take risks. Combine that with Taiwan's unwillingness or inability to build their own strong brand names and you have a situation where the Taiwanese wait and see and where a few major US and Japanese players farm out their Pocket PC business to Taiwan--a low risk, post-9/11-style proposition.
Everyone sits tight, waiting for Microsoft to make the next big move. And as the Tablet PC proved, Microsoft can still do it. -
Conrad H. Blickenstorfer
All contents ©1995-2003 Pen Computing Magazine, Inc. All
Unauthorized reproduction in any form is strictly prohibited.
Contact the Pen Computing Publishing Office for reprint information.