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Windows CEntral
January 2004

Familiarity usually breeds contempt, but not with the Pocket PC

As a journalist and chronicler of mobile technology I like to see cool new stuff. Last year's news is just that. Old. Boring. Show me something new. That's pretty much the way I've viewed the Pocket PC's seemingly never-changing look and feel. But you know what? I discovered that in this case at least, familiarity doesn't breed contempt. In fact, I like it. What brought upon this change of heart?

It's probably because I am getting sick and tired of having to figure out a new user interface on ever other electronic gizmo that finds its way onto my desk. Lately, it seems like every new Palm OS device, and especially those from Sony, does things differently. Sure, I admire some of those amazing new little Sonys with their gorgeous displays and oodles of features and tricks, but I find it rather annoying to have to learn yet another interface extension. But that's not half as bad as in some other consumer electronics. Take digital cameras for example. In addition to my duties here at Pen Computing, I am also publication director of our sister publication, Digital Camera Magazine. In that capacity I get to review some of the latest and greatest digital cameras, marvels of ever advancing technology, but also endlessly frustrating because much of their power is hampered by near incomprehensible user interfaces. Canon, Olympus, Kodak, Toshiba, Minolta et al all do their own thing that's different from anyone else, and often different even within makes and product lines. That interface nightmare (and tiny displays that are unreadable outdoors) effectively reduces many high powered digicam to just point-and-shooters that stay in automatic mode because their owners can't figure out how it works.

Now compare that to a Pocket PC. If you ever had a Pocket PC, you know how every other Pocket PC works, regardless of brand or features. In fact, even if the Pocket PC's predecessor, the Palm-size PC, worked pretty much the same. Someone unfortunate enough to have invested in a Philips Nino way back in '99 will find a small degree of solace in the fact that those hours figuring out the Nino were not wasted; a shiny new iPAQ 4000 Series Pocket PC works just about the same.

I am really starting to appreciate that. It's nice to pick up a new Pocket PC and immediately know how to adjust the backlight, check memory status, or finetune the power settings. It's even nicer to know where all the programs are and what they can do. The Pocket Office apps may not set the world on fire with their features, but I know how they work and they work the same on every Pocket PC. If I want to enter data into a Pocket PC, again, they all work the same. Popup keyboard? Check. Transcriber? Check. Block and Letter Recognizer? All present and accounted for. The PIM also works the same on every Pocket PC, and that's the way it's supposed to be. PIMs are supposed to make one's life easier, not more frustrating.

And this soothing, friendly consistency doesn't stop in software. It also extends to Pocket PC hardware. All have those four application buttons, a navigation disc, and a record button on the right. And I always know where to find the stylus. Upper right. Not cleverly hidden where you least expect it. Palm used to make a big deal of "one button sync" and that remains a nice feature. But I like ActiveSync even better. Not only is it "zero button sync," but it also works the same with Windows CE/Windows Mobile device, even the new Microsoft smartphones. Again, a big plus for Microsoft's smallest OS platform.

Does that mean I want the Pocket PC to stay the same forever? Not at all. A switch to a higher resolution display is long overdue and it will probably have some impact on the user interface. But if and when it happens, I hope Microsoft will evolve the current interface rather than change it just for the sake of it. Evolution, in fact, has always been a keyword in Pocket PC development and, in fact, in the growth of the entire Windows CE platform. Sure, Microsoft made some mistakes along the way (primarily in initially dumbing down Windows CE to keep it from competing with Windows-based notebooks), but by and large they stuck to their guns and worked on it until it was just right. The original Pocket PC was so good that it really didn't need much change, and, thankfully, Microsoft realized that and didn't mess with a good thing.

As a result, the Pocket PC is a prime example of a technology that provides consistent value and productivity rather than frustration due to endless, needless changes. And it is also a prime example of a platform that keeps evolving and getting better and more powerful without changing its looks. The switch from Pocket PC to Pocket PC 2002 was an example of a very user-friendly update, as was the almost imperceptible changes between Pocket PC 2002 and Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PC.

One of the secrets to the longevity of the Pocket PC interface is its clever design. Microsoft allowed customization where it matters while keeping the basic structure intact. The Pocket PC's "Today" screen is highly customizable and a terrific starting point for anyone using the device. The "Program" screen might get a bit crowded, but at least you always know where programs are. Same for Settings. By keeping things simple and consistent, Microsoft created a user interface that works.

Interestingly enough, the Pocket PC interface is highly flexible as well. I never had a problem using a Pocket PC phone because the extra functionality is so well integrated into the Pocket PC template. Using the interface on a scaled-down device like the new Windows-powered smartphones presented a challenge, but one that Microsoft handled with remarkable poise and elegance. I felt right at home with the new Motorola MPx200 phone equipped with the initial version of what is officially called the Windows Mobile Software for Smartphone. The Today screen is terrific even on a tiny display, everything is where I expected it to be, and everything worked the way I thought it should.

So there. Doing things the same old way is not always a bad thing, not as long as it works and makes sense. And especially not when the basic platform is as solid as the Pocket PC. -

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

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