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Commentary by Pen Computing Magazine's editor-in-chief

By Conrad H. Blickenstorfer
Issue 55

The Palm OS sold to Japan? Palm building Windows Mobile machines? Who'd have ever thought that!? In the meantime, the Tablet PC is coming along nicely, with many interesting new products and developments.
As we approach the third anniversary of the Tablet PC's official unveiling, the mobile technology world is a different place in more ways than one.

For example, who'd have ever thought that the very Palm operating system would end up being sold off to a Japanese company? And we're not talking a big one like Sony or Panasonic, but just a relatively small software maker like Access, the people who make the Netfront browser. Yet, that is what happened when Access outbid Palm's own half-hearted attempt at taking over PalmSource, the official guardian of the Palm OS. Access says it will continue support of existing versions of the Palm OS, and that it will also complete the Linux/Palm OS hybrid that had already been in progress. According to Access, their eventual goal is to combine their Linux-based Access Netfront browser with Palm OS version 5x, the one that's generally known as "Garnet."

Then there were all those rumors that Palm itself would start making devices using Windows Mobile instead of the Palm OS. That very thought would have been not only blasphemous but also utterly ridiculous just a few years ago, in those heady days when Palm ruled the PDA market with a near-monopolistic marketshare. Palm vehemently denied any such rumors. Yet, a couple of weeks after the news of the sale of PalmSource, there it was: Palm will offer a version of the Treo 650 with the Windows Mobile OS!

Palm's press release called the move "a strategic alliance to accelerate the smartphone market segment." Palm CEO Ed Colligan said "We've long believed that the future of personal computing is mobile computing, and our collaboration with Microsoft is a historic step in delivering that vision to a larger market." Who'd have ever thought.

The larger issue, of course, is that the PDA market did not turn out to be as lucrative as we all expected. Back around the turn of the millennium experts predicted 20, 40, 60 or even 80 million PDAs sold by the year 2005. In fact, sales levelled off at around ten million. Not bad, but not exactly where we wanted to be. Why did the PDA, the most personal of all computers, falter?

It'd be easy to blame Microsoft. After all, they only joined the PDA party very reluctantly, in sort of the same way they joined the first pen computing revolution in the early 1990s. PDAs, just like pen computers before, seemed a threat, a minor one perhaps, but better safe than sorry. So Windows CE devices never were a truly compelling reason to buy a mobile device, at least not until the arrival of the Pocket PC.

For a good many years, Palm did a lot better. Palm devices were inexpensive, simple, fast and useful--pretty much everything Microsoft's offerings were not. It seemed like the original PDA dream, the one the Newton couldn't fulfill (or the one Apple decided not to let the Newton fulfill), would actually become reality. But then the unthinkable happened when Handspring, the very company we all hoped would really make the Palm shine and elevate it to incredible new heights, basically announced that PDAs were not the way to go and they'd now concentrate on smartphones. That was the end for them. You can't beat Nokia and Sony Ericsson at their own game. So Handspring got absorbed by Palm and soon Palm seemed to lose interest in PDAs itself. Just like Sony had when it pulled a Philips (in reference to Philips' shameful abandonment of the Windows CE market and all of their Velo and Nino customers a few years prior) and stranded all of its Clie owners. Sure, Palm still released a few nice new products, but it was clear that the fight was gone.

Why everyone simply seems to be giving up on the PDA is beyond me. Not everyone wants a little phone with a big monthly service bill.The PDA dream promised so much more than that. It simply cannot die. I still want a terrific little computer with a reasonably large hi-res screen, one that has enough storage for whatever I want to take with me, one that lets me browse the web if I need to, gives me access to my email, perhaps even includes a digital camera. But I want for it to be a PDA first, and a phone second. A distant second. I want for it to be MY device, and not the phone company's. I want to see the dream of intelligent agents revived. I do not want to be locked into every service provider's proprietary, overpriced offerings.

So much for that.

Things are a lot more fun on the Tablet PC side. Sure, pen computing isn't going to replace the prevailing Windows metaphor anytime soon, especially not with Microsoft doing a more than decent job at fostering the Tablet PC platform. No one quite knows how it will all turn out, but the Tablet PC platform has been fairly widely adopted.

Almost all rugged pen computing slates now come with an active digitizer and the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. Some manufacturers offer both touchscreen and Tablet PC versions. Others, like Itronix and Xplore, have developed digitizers that can quickly switch between active and passive. That way customers can use the pen in the office or in a vehicle, but operate an application with the touch of a finger in the field or in situations where they need to wear gloves.

For a while it looked like Tablet PC convertibles, essentially standard notebooks with a swivel screen and a digitizer, would replace the slates, but now it looks like both form factors have their place. Companies like Fujitsu and Motion Computing are releasing ever more powerful pen slates. Economies of scale and the availability of a standardized software platform in the XP Tablet PC Edition can be thanked for that. Motion Computing, especially, has advanced the state-of-the-art in pen slates with their rapid-fire release of new and updated models. We don't have a review of it yet, but do go to Motion's website and take a look at their tiny LS800. It has most of the power of a standard-size Windows computer, yet measures just 8.9 x 6.7 inches and weighs barely more than two pounds. Amazing.

We're also seeing much better integration of pen and ink functionality into Windows. Microsoft seems to take ink as a new data type seriously. It's amazing what one can do with ink and I wish more people could use it on their computers. The screenshot on top of this page shows an automotive tuning application that's been annotated with the Microsoft Snipping Tool for Tablet PC. Snipping Tool comes can be downloaded for free as part of the also free Microsoft Experience Pack for Tablet PC. It's terrific. No matter what application you're in, you can use the Snipping Tool to capture any part of the display, then annotate it with pens and markers of different size and color. You then save the annotated screenshot or email it to someone else. What a great way to remember important things, highlight problems, or explain actions taken.

The Tablet PC platform has so much to offer to so many people in so many walks of life, we're sometimes surprised the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition hasn't taken the world by storm yet. - -

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer, a former corporate CIO, is editor-in-chief of Pen Computing Magazine and Publication Director of Digital Camera Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at