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Palm Column

What Microsoft needs to challenge Palm

by Shawn Barnett
May 2001, issue 39

One thing. Just one thing is needed to take on Palm, and the Pocket PC doesn't have it. While it has faster processors, greater capabilities, greater memory, a more sophisticated OS, bigger screens, audio, and now the incredible ability to play full, feature-length movies, all these Pocket PCs are still missing this one thing that would guarantee them considerably more market share.

I know, you're thinking better batteries. It is a big problem, admittedly. All the above high tech tends to drain the battery such that you'd be a fool to go out with your iPaq even for a day without bringing along the charger; something Palm users seldom even think about unless they're leaving for a month. What's amazing is that you can have the world's most beautiful handheld computer--next to the Palm V, that is--and dazzle your friends for several hours, but when it decides to die, the lovely iPaq is just another silver paperweight. But improving battery life alone won't bring Palm to its knees.

Could they simplify the OS? Well, yeah, that would have an effect. But they've done that already, and it helped only a little. I can't really understand how they thought adding a big long menu that extends beyond the bottom of the screen would help matters. It's so multipurpose that it is very cumbersome to use, even on a desktop computer. Why not two or more menus, the model that has worked on many platforms for years, including Palm? They're still blinded by desktop Windows and its Start menu.

And why do I have to drill down three levels just to find out my battery status or adjust the contrast? The designers of the Palm--and incidentally of Windows 9x--thought enough to put a battery status icon where you can always see it at a glance; in fact, desktop Windows does this even better than the Palm, because with the Palm you have to go back to the application view. What, was the battery status indicator programmer out that day? No matter, while simplifying the OS is necessary, it really wouldn't help enough.

How about size? Though the iPaq, Jornada 540, and EM500 are smaller and considerably more pocketable than their forebears, they're still bigger and bulkier than a Palm V or m100. Ironically, the svelte iPaq actually gets bigger than its PPC competitors when you add one of the multiple expansion sleeves that give it a variety of expansion ports. If you don't know, the iPaq lacks any real expansion port, like a CF or MMC card slot, and these big sleeves give it some expansion. Still, all PPCs are portable enough for most people, so this isn't it.

Nope, it's not price either. I think these guys are losing their shirts compared to Palm given the comparative costs of the components they're using in these technologically advanced machines, when Palm computers are using a slightly-modified version of the processor that appeared in the Apple Macintosh in 1984, which now costs less than US$8 in quantity.

The sad part is it's so obvious. The one thing is the foundation upon which are built their homes, factories, brand names, and the very computer industry that eventually spawned these little handheld marvels, and it's called Compatibility.

I was blown away recently while talking with a prominent decision maker in the portable computing industry when he, in one sentence, summed up where all these guys are making their mistake, himself included: "What we have to figure out is how we're going to differentiate ourselves from the competition."

Rather than ignorance of their own history dooming them to repeat it, which in this case would be a good thing, they're completely ignoring the lessons of the PC boom. Here's a reminder: the PC industry has thrived because of open standards, because of cross-compatibility, because they all tried their darndest to copy and make sure they were compatible with the most successful computer company in the world: IBM. They were so good at it that companies like Compaq eventually far surpassed Big Blue itself. And they did it all by both being compatible and being better. Not better in any significant architectural way, but with better customer support and greater reliability, always maintaining the highest levels of quality. In that respect they were different, but always--even when they pioneered advances like the IDE interface--they were Compatible.

And when IBM tried to break away from these copycats by creating MicroChannel Architecture (MCA), a more advanced architecture that the others would have to license, Compaq did what someone needs to do now: they formed a coalition against Big Blue to create their own competing and open standard called Extended Industry Standard Architecture (EISA). They eventually forced IBM to abandon MCA in the consumer space, and the Personal Computer industry continued to thrive, almost destroying the also proprietary Apple Computer in the process. Indeed, Apple is alive today in part because they made themselves compatible with PC disks and data files, and in the past few years they included hardware compatibility by adopting PCI slots, IDE hard drives, and USB ports, in effect opening their formerly proprietary hardware to the wide universe of PC peripherals manufacturers.

Since there is clearly no hardware market leader among PPCs for all to clone, Microsoft needs to lead, adding one more stipulation to their licensing contracts for PPCs: "For the period of three years there shall be one expansion and I/O standard in all devices bearing the Windows Powered trademark, to be determined by Microsoft." I'm voting for what used to be the standard, Compact Flash, but I would be happy with SD. All devices would have to be designed to put this I/O slot or port in the same place, with mating surfaces to be compatible with a basic set of parameters, just like the original ISA slot was in the IBM PC, so that peripherals manufacturers can make one peripheral that will work with all PPCs.

This is the strength that Palm had in its early days that Windows CE and Pocket PC has never had. Today, of course, there are almost as many different cradles for Palm OS machines as there are machines to sit in them. But when the market was young, peripherals developers could count on a reasonable number of sales by just making their product compatible with that one well-distributed standard: the Pilot. Even the current Palm IIIxe, Palm VIIx, and TRGpro are still compatible with most peripherals created for the Pilot. When Palm reached critical mass, its peripheral developers could better afford to follow Palm into its multiple form factors. Now, differentiation isn't such a problem, since there's a huge market of various device owners to whom developers can sell their wares. It is a little dangerous for the Palm OS, admittedly, given that there are now five major expansion options available for Palm (Springboard, Memory Stick, Compact Flash, Secure Digital, and the old serial port). If there ever is a time when you can differentiate your products, Palm is at least close to it. But these PPC guys have been doing it from the beginning, all the time wondering why they just can't crack the market.

It's called compatibility, guys. You made billions on the concept over the past twenty years. If you want to grow this new market, you have to embrace compatibility again so peripherals manufacturers can see some payoff to investing development dollars. It has been mostly the independent developers' efforts that have made the PC industry what it is today, and the PC manufacturers did their part by ensuring an open architecture for those developers to build and create. The same must be done in the PPC market if it's going to succeed.

Even though the growing incompatibility among their machines could represent a chink in the armor, the good news for Palm is that those PPC guys will never get it. They're too far removed from their own history. The guys who were in charge back then have retired early. Now they're losing money on dot coms while they doodle on their Palm Vs. And Microsoft is moving more toward incompatibility since they have already declared that they will be putting their new portable OS in every device that will accept it, allowing programmers to leave out whatever they don't need. In some ways it'll help Microsoft license more forms of their OS, and both hardware engineers and programmers won't have to support a lot of unnecessary code; but the tradeoff is that Microsoft will have a heck of a time enforcing meaningful standards, and compatibility among devices that run this Frankenstein OS will be difficult if not impossible to ensure.

These PPCs are being built by the same PC makers who are slowing the PC industry by introducing their equally incompatible and limited desktop computers, one of which is also inexplicably called iPaq. I guess it's a new trend to tear out your roots and roll around in search of proprietary designs--innovations that will help you steamroll the very guys with whom you should be standing firm to challenge your common foe. If they're not careful, they could lose control in the tussle and roll down hill to join the river of dot coms floating out to sea.

Shawn Barnett can be reached via email at

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