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From the Editor (Dec 1998)

The editor goes to Japan

This is our biggest issue of Pen Computing Magazine ever, a full 148 pages. Not very big by Computer Shopper or PC Magazine standards, but pretty good for what started out as a small niche magazine by independent Aeon Publishing. As usual, we saved our biggest effort of the year for what we call, inhouse, the "Comdex issue." We’ll be at Comdex again this year where we plan to hand out about 15,000 copies of this issue; meet with vendors, readers, and other old friends; attend the usual complement of glitzy Comdex parties; and probably drop a bit of change in the casinos. I know everyone is complaining how time consuming Comdex is, how inconvenient it is to have the exhibits spread out over three convention centers, and how hideously Las Vegas hotels stick it to the Comdex crowd (as in "We have to charge them high rates because they don’t gamble.") Yeah right. But Comdex is still an experience and I am looking forward to it.

Speaking of experiences, I recently had one that I won’t soon forget. I spent a week in Japan as part of an international press tour organized by Sharp. I had never been to Japan before and it turned out to be an eye-opening eight days in every respect. I had expected to be dazzled by high technology and confronting what most people think Japan is all about: high prices, overcrowding, and raw fish.

Instead, while I did find all the dazzling high technology I expected (read my report on a stroll through the famed Akihabara district in Tokyo on page 112), I was equally impressed with the unique Japanese view of the world and the way Japan has woven a societal quilt that includes both the old and the new, the Western and the Eastern, the spiritual and the pragmatical. It is what gives the country and its people a totally unique charm and appeal.

Thanks to our gracious hosts at Sharp, we were exposed to a cross section of technology and culture, learning all about the latest advances in LCDs and multimedia and all the other areas where Sharp is involved, while also having a chance to peruse those wonderful Japanese shrines and temples in the old Shogun city of Kyoto. The kindness and politeness of the Japanese in just about every situation is absolutely mind-boggling for the average American.

Perhaps the most lasting impression I took home with me is that our respective societies, the Japanese and the American, are sort of a ying and yang, both depending on each other and complementing each other. There are many ways of illustrating this thesis.

For example, the Japanese are forever improving, miniaturizing, and enhancing every technology they concentrate on, and they have these visions of how it will all result in a grand future that makes everyone’s life better. From an American point of view, some of these visions seem, well, somewhat optimistic, and you can’t help but notice that almost every computer runs Microsoft Windows. Yet, software is generally viewed as sort of an afterthought.

In the States, on the other hand, it is Microsoft and other software and networking companies that conjure up visions of the future that seem rather more realistic. And Intel supplies the processors that make it all happen, here as well as in Japan.
It’s all too easy to fall back into clichés about our respective cultures, but there’s a good bit of truth to them. My trip to Japan showed me that we are much more interrelated and interdependent than I thought. More than just competitors, we are partners, with both sides providing strengths and complementing weaknesses.

It is very important to realize this as we head towards a new millennium.

That said, I can’t help but be jealous of the huge variety of state-of-the-art products Japanese consumers have at their disposal. For example, while US analysts and experts (and the occasional cartoonist), spent years ridiculing the PDA concept, the Japanese quietly bought over 1.5 million Sharp Zaurus PDAs and probably another million or two handhelds and PDAs made by some of the other Japanese electronics giants.

Longtime readers of Pen Computing Magazine will remember our reports on some of these Japanese market marvels, like the Fujitsu INTERtop or the Sharp Color Zaurus and Power Zaurus. Every time we saw one of those products we hoped the powers-that-be would authorize a US version so that we, too, could delight in them. There are, of course, significant differences between the US and the Japanese markets and I can understand some, though certainly not all, of the reluctance to at least test market some of those products over here. For example, one wonders what the handheld landscape would look like today had Sharp decided to bring the real Zaurus over here back in 1994.

As is, I was so impressed with the brand new Color Pocket Zaurus that I actually bought one and brought it back with me, even though its software is all Japanese. But how could I resist a technological marvel that is about the size of a Philips Nino that has a 64,000 color active matrix screen that can be seen both indoors and outdoors, even in the brightest sunlight? Reflective color screens use much less energy than conventional TFTs, are lighter and thinner, and will most likely revolutionize the mobile handheld industry. At this point, admittedly, they are still somewhat of a compromise, with less contrast than a good backlit DSTN or TFT, but that will change and then we’ll finally have mobile computers whose displays you can see anywhere.

But now let’s take a look at what’s happening on the pen and mobile market right here in the United States. The big news is that Microsoft has finally released "Jupiter," the next iteration of its multi-pronged Windows CE initiative. The "H/PC Pro," as it is officially called, is a package of software improvements to the prior version of Windows CE for handheld PCs. H/PC Pro also adds significantly expanded hardware support so that Windows CE based handhelds can now include full VGA or even SVGA screens, USB ports, a number of new processor families, and even mice or touchpads. The file system has been enhanced and now supports larger files and installable file systems (think Iomega Clik!). The list goes on and on.

As a result, we’re now seeing the emergence of a new class of CE devices, one that is certain to intrigue just about everybody who needs mobile computing power.

Purists will no doubt denounce the need for a full 640 by 480 or 800 by 600 screen, and they will most certainly be horrified over the prospect of a handheld PC with a mouse! But there is no denying that devices like the innovative Vadem Clio, the gorgeous Sharp Mobilon Pro, and the impressive NEC MobilePro 800 will cause a whole new segment of users to try out Windows CE. Tiny handhelds like the first generation CE HPCs have their place (just as the venerable HP 200LX had for many years), but the new H/PC Pros are certain to appeal to a much larger audience.

There is just one aspect of the H/PC Pro platform that worries me. Marketing. Even inside the mobile community, confusion over Microsoft’s message and naming convention couldn’t be greater. H/PC Pro consists of version 2.11 of Windows CE, version 2.2 of the PC based CE Services, and version 3.0 of the CE applications. Please! And Microsoft, fearful of creating the impression that Windows CE devices could eat into the lucrative Windows notebook market, still insists on portraying the H/PC Pro platform as a "PC companion." That may be so for some, but many others will use these devices independent of any desktop or notebook PC.

It won’t be easy to come up with a coherent message but the fact is that Windows CE badly needs one. Else, CE may find itself in a situation similar to the one that caused Apple to place ads asking "What is Newton?" without ever offering a compelling answer. The rest of that story, of course, is history.

So let’s start with the basics. It makes no sense to sell H/PC Pro devices as the poor man’s notebook. Likewise, I wouldn’t sell them as dumbed-down "PC companions." Rather, I’d start a campaign hammering on the two aspects that truly differentiate an H/PC Pro from a Windows 98 notebook. These are "instant on" and "battery life." It’s invaluable to be able to push a button and be right back where you left off, without a lengthy boot or (possible) recovery from hibernation. It’s equally invaluable to take your handheld anywhere without having to worry about the battery. I rarely ever even take the power adapter of my NEC MobilePro 750C on the road with me because I know I won’t need it. Notebook computers, on the other hand, are not really mobile at all because their batteries run out after a couple of hours or sooner.

So let’s hope that Microsoft and its hardware partners will soon find a way to simplify things! -

-Conrad H. Blickenstorfer is editor-in-chief of Pen Computing Magazine and general editor of Digital Camera Magazine. He is also a mobile technology contributor to the Fortune Magazine Techn ology Buyer's Guide.

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