From the editorCommentary by Pen Computing Magazine's editor-in-chief
By Conrad H. Blickenstorfer
December 1999, issue 31
Comdex time again and we're all excited. Though we generally get more information relevant to our industry from attending the much smaller but more focused mobile shows throughout the year, Comdex remains an event not to be missed. Sure, the hotels in Las Vegas jack up the room rates to downright obscene levels during Comdex week ("That's because these computer people, they don't gamble...") and some of the biggest names in the industry haven't gone to Comdex in years. It doesn't matter, Fall Comdex is still the biggest computer event in the United States. For those of us following mobile computing Comdex '99 promises to be a special treat now that handhelds and palmtops are finally big business. There are over six million Palm devices out there now, a figure that no one can ignore. Add to that a good number of Windows CE devices, a bunch of Psions and other contenders, and it's easy to see why, all of a sudden, mobile computing is hot. Corporate America is taking an interest. Mobile computing is rapidly becoming part of the enterprise, and no one wants to miss the boat.
This year we'll be taking our newly acquired staff limo (dubbed "The Big Car") to Comdex, a nicely preserved '86 Cadillac Fleetwood 75 Formal Limousine. The thing was sitting in front of our office for several days with a For Sale sign in the window. An overworked bunch of editors needs some fun every now and then and so we thought, "Why not?" Now the limo is ours and we intend to convert it into the ultimate rolling mobile office, decked out with mobile technology to the max-LAN, mounting hardware, printing, faxing, wireless, GPS and whatever else we can fit. So if any of our advertisers or readers in the mobile industry are interested in featuring their latest and greatest in the PCM Mobile Office Project, just holler. And if you see us roll on down the streets of Vegas during Comdex, honk!
Sadly, no matter how grand this year's Comdex will be, there won't be anything like the spectacular 1996 rollout of Windows CE. In fact, we fear that Windows CE may just about get lost in a sea of Palm OS announcements, products, and, of course, press events and parties. What happened to the vaunted Windows CE juggernaut? And what happened to all those CE licensees who brimmed with confidence back in 96? Is Microsoft really going to be playing second fiddle in the mobile field, or are they just taking a breather?
That's actually a pretty big question. As I write this column two weeks before Comdex, it does appear that there really won't be much Windows CE activity. However, there just might not be all that much activity in the Palm OS camp either, at least not from 3Com whose stated intent to spin off Palm as a public company might make them keep their cards close to the vest. And also because what might well have been the big story of Comdex '99-Handspring-is cutting back on publicity, officially because of excessive demand for their new Visor. Of course, just about every delay or price increase these days may or may not have something to do with earthquake-induced manufacturing problems in Taiwan.
So let's take a quick inventory of what to expect: On the Palm side we have a stellar lineup from the 3Com mothership. All 3Com Palms are either cheaper, cooler, or have more memory. And no matter whether they'll be there or not, Handspring will loom large. 3Com may own the Palm franchise, but the people who created it are now at Handspring, and judging by the Visor and the brilliant Springboard concept that could take the Palm platform to an entirely new level, their creativity is in overdrive. Add to that a groundswell of third party developer support and enthusiasm for the Palm platform the likes of which haven't been seen since the early days of Newton, and you have a phenomenon in the making.
Where does that leave Windows CE? During 1999, we've seen a disturbing number of dropouts. And we're not only talking marginal competitors who rebadged generic designs, but some of the very pioneers. Heavyweights like Samsung, LG Electronics, and NEC decided against bringing their palm-size PC designs to market. Philips, the undisputed early leader in both the first and second generation of Windows CE devices, decided to throw in the towel altogether. (It's no secret that we at Pen Computing Magazine harbor some pretty hard feelings about Philips and its incredible disappearing act with both the Velo and the Nino.)
But let's look beyond the Philips debacle. Most of the major CE players are still around, some laying low and some charging ahead with great new designs. And they have been joined by big name newcomers. The wheat is almost always separated from the chaff and so it is now names like Compaq, Hewlett Packard, Casio, IBM, and NEC that dominate the CE market. NEC deserves kudos for having been there from Day One, doggedly improving and perfecting their handheld PCs. Compaq had the guts to introduce Sharp's awesome HR-TFT screen technology in the US and then followed up with the sleek Aero 1530, proving that 3Com doesn't have a monopoly on slimline, sexy palmtops. Casio's E-100 pioneered an entirely new class of machines-personal multimedia. HP picked up on that, and as a result we have the James Bond-approved Jornada 430se.
And let's not forget the lesser known names. Vadem's Clio has been hands-down the most attractive and revolutionary mobile computer design in years and we're happy to report that they now have fixed the one thing that held the Clio back-speed. With the new 1050, Vadem changed the Clio from a pokey performer to a sizzler. The 1050 flies, proving once and for all that Windows CE does not have to be slow. I hope Vadem reaps ample rewards for its great work.
And let's not forget that while Windows CE has pretty much been trounced in the consumer market, the opposite is true in the very lucrative vertical markets. There, the Palm OS has one significant design win (Symbol Technologies) whereas Windows CE is used in literally dozens of new products. Most major vertical market players have admitted that they are betting their future on Microsoft Windows CE, and that they see it as the primary replacement for their older proprietary or DOS-based designs. And let's not forget a half million-plus Sega Dreamcast next generation game consoles which are "Windows CE compatible." A single megahit killer game could do wonders for Windows CE.
Yes, mobile computing has arrived. I'll never forget the day when Andrew Seybold looked at the first issue of Pen Computing Magazine back in 1993. His comment was that "three years ago I'd have said you're crazy for starting a magazine on pen computing. Now I think you may be on to something." Well, Andrew Seybold has been one of our most cherished contributors for almost six years and his prediction has turned out to be true, as he himself stated on his website: "Pen-based computing is an industry sector of substance, with the technology incorporated in some of the hottest-selling handhelds."
Pen computing is no longer a dirty word. The pen interface is rapidly becoming a major asset. Panasonic Personal Computer Corporation has been adding pen support to all of its new Toughbook offerings. Whereas the pen interface was once limited to Fujitsu's Personal Systems group, it is now available in several of their acclaimed Lifebooks. And whereas most Americans associate the name "Cassiopeia" with CE devices, Casio is now offering the new Windows 98 Cassiopeia FIVA with a pen interface.
On the handwriting recognition front, there have been casualties and wins. Among the fountainheads, Dr. Ronjon Nag's Lexicus flourishes under Motorola's wings, but once proud Paragraph is gone as a separate entity and co-founder Dr. Stepan Pachikov has left Vadem. CalliGrapher, however, lives on as Microsoft has purchased the rights to it in an equity investment in Vadem. ART, after several years of aggressively challenging CIC's leadership, is taking a somewhat lower-key role these days, and CIC itself is reinventing itself as a provider of a variety of remote recognition and thin client technologies.
Have fun at Comdex!
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 Technology Buyer's Guide. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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