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Windows CEntral
january 2004

Pocket PC 2003: We got what we need

Well, the big update to the Pocket PC software platform happened, and most people likely didn't even notice. It's no longer Pocket PC 2002. It's now Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PC. No one can ever accuse Microsoft of strict (or any) naming consistency for their operating systems, but in the end it really doesn't matter.

I must admit that I had hoped for some substantial changes and improvements in Pocket PC, like the ones we saw during the early days of Windows CE where the platform went from a bare, spartan, utilitarian micro OS to a rich, elaborate platform supporting SVGA and all sorts of peripherals on the hardware side and adding all sorts of wonderful application functionality on the software side. Instead, Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PC is to Pocket PC 2002 a bit like Windows 3.1 was to Windows 3.0. 3.0 was the first version of Windows truly ready for prime time, just as Pocket PC and Pocket PC 2002 were the first version of Windows CE that was almost universally accepted as a solid, useful platform. Yet, while Windows 3.0 laid the groundwork, it was Windows 3.1 that became the stalwart of computing for several years, until the next big step, Windows 95. Windows 3.1 wasn't revolutionary. It simply provided a much more solid underpinning, fixed a bunch of stuff, and generally provided the kind of reliability and functionality that real people in real jobs needed to do real work.

Likewise, while Windows Mobile 2003 doesn't look any different and doesn't seem to offer a lot of new features, it is an entirely more solid platform that quietly and competently does where Pocket PC 2002 struggled. When Microsoft officially announced Pocket PC 2003 back in June, I commented that while the new version may not be what a lot of people wanted or expected, it was what we needed. I still feel that way. For a detailed description of Windows Mobile 2003, see Technology Editor Geoff Walker's article starting on page 60.

Does this mean I am entirely happy with things? No. Palm has caught up in way too many areas and moved ahead in some, and that's simply not the way it ought to be. I am definitely jealous of that endless variety of software available to Palm users, all the many form factors, the innovation Sony brings to the table, and, most of all, the higher resolution of many Palm products.

Resolution definitely matters. All the speed and wireless connectivity and improved browsers in the world don't mean a thing if you still have to peek at the web through a tiny 240 x 320 pixel pinhole. So yes, I continue to be baffled why Microsoft Pocket PC does not support VGA or at least half-VGA resolution at this point. It simply makes no sense at all.

On the hardware side we're seeing some interesting shifts. First, while the Palm platform continues to clearly rule the consumer markets, Windows' dominance in vertical markets is even more dramatic. With the exception of a couple of Palm-based handhelds developed by Symbol, Windows has the same stronghold on the vertical handheld market as it has on desktops and notebooks. It was never even a contest.

But there are changes in the consumer market as well. While I wouldn't go as far as saying that Microsoft has conceded that market entirely, it is becoming very clear that Pocket PCs are for business first and for rank-and-file consumers second. That's evident in the changes made in Windows Mobile 2003 which are almost exclusively for the benefit of corporate users. It's also evident by looking at who dominates the Pocket PC market these days, as there has been a major shift in that arena as well.

In the early days Microsoft-based PDAs and handhelds were available from almost all of the major electronics giants (Casio, IBM, NEC, Philips, etc.) and a number of challengers trying to gain a foothold in what was seen as possibly the next big thing. That has changed. While there is still a good number of companies marketing Pocket PCs, and possibly more than ever, the vast majority come from the same handful of major computer companies that dominate the desktop and notebook scene. Hewlett Packard practically owns the market. Dell and Toshiba come on stronger and stronger, but as of now HP has their number. The rest are independents or peripheral manufactures like ViewSonic. It's as if Pocket PCs have morphed into optional (and likely quite profitable) PC add-ons.

That's not necessarily bad. Hewlett Packard, in particular, is really impressing me with its seemingly never-ending flurry of new and improved iPAQs which has expanded into a whole family of products. The top-of-the-line iPAQ 5000 Series is about as functional and mature as they come, with the large display/wireless/Bluetooth/fingerprint scanner-equipped h5550 securely positioned as the road warrior's perfect PC away from the PC. For those who need something lighter smaller there is the 1900 Series, devices so small and light and elegant that they appeal to more than just corporate types. My personal favorite is the iPAQ h2200, smaller than the big 5000 Series machines and more powerful than the little 1900s. In fact, the HP iPAQ h2200 is my Pocket PC of choice these days, the one I take home every night and keep all my data on.

However, apparently not content with just these three lines of great Pocket PCs, Hewlett Packard recently introduced a fourth, the 4000 Series. That series consists of two models so different that it is not entirely clear why they share the same Series number. The iPAQ h4155 might as well be called a h1975 because it looks and feels just like a high-end 1900 Series product. The iPAQ h4355 is an entirely different matter. It is the first iPAQ with an integrated RIM-style thumbtype keyboard. Specs are roughly the same, but the addition of the keyboard gives the 4300 a very different look and makes it a good inch longer as well. This strategy seems eerily reminiscent to when, what seems like eons ago, Handspring introduced a set of Treos, one with and one without an integrated keyboard.

With the h4355 the Pocket PC concept has come full circle. First we thought PDAs didn't work because they had no keyboard, so we got little clamshells. Then Palm showed that PDAs work anyway. Then RIM showed that tiny keyboards also work and soon they popped up on PDAs. So now we have tiny PDAs with tiny keyboards. -

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

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