Analysis: Powering the Pocket PC

Version 3.0 of Microsoft's Windows CE for handheld devices offers improved features for users and developers, giving it a much greater appeal for corporate customers. Murdoch Mactaggart reports

In the handheld market, Microsoft is far behind Palm, its main competitor. But the release of version 3.0 of the Windows CE operating system for handhelds, coupled with developments in hardware could improve Microsoft's position.

Palm is currently the clear leader with about 75 percent of the market for personal digital assistants (PDAs). The Symbian alliance, comprising Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia, Psion and others, is also doing well. It is responsible for the Epoc operating system for handhelds and, thanks partly to its European bias, is well ahead of both Palm and Microsoft in terms of digital mobile communications technology.

Businesses adopt mobiles

The market for handhelds could be considerably greater than that for desktop PCs, both in terms of hardware numbers and value. One reason for this is that improvements in component parts means that PDAs are rapidly gaining more functionality. Adding remote connectivity enhances handhelds greatly.

The current 9600bit/s data rate of GSM will be left behind as new technologies such as High-Speed Circuit-Switched Data (HSCSD) and General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) come into use, and these will eventually be followed by even faster and more reliable mechanisms. Symbian's Quartz device already combines PDA and mobile phone into one unit, something which other manufacturers will duly follow. The result of increased functionality is that such devices will become ubiquitous within the enterprise, as happened with the PC about 15 years ago.

Another reason why Windows CE is growing in importance for Microsoft is that a large number of proposed devices are neither conventional computer systems nor PDAs, but require an operating system.

Windows CE can fill this role. It can be used with a number of different GUIs, or none at all, and can run on several different processors. This means that there is scope for deploying various types of CE devices, ranging from PDAs to petrol pumps and drinks dispensers. The small memory requirement of Windows CE makes it more versatile than other Windows platforms.

Much of the change between versions 2.11 and 3.0 of Windows CE has taken place in the user interface used with palm-format devices. Branded as Pocket PC, this is now far simpler, more intuitive and easier to use.

Meanwhile, the devices that use Windows CE have also improved. For example, battery life has been extended and 10 to 15 hours continuous use may now be possible for some devices. Many also have speeded up response times for tasks such as bringing up the start menu or finding items.

Legibility on the small screens of these devices has also been greatly improved. Plus a new feature has been added to Windows CE so users can enter text by writing normally.

Windows CE was first launched in summer 1998, but the operating system initially made onerous demands on the contemporary hardware. In consequence, devices had a number of shortcomings. Although colour was supported this was at the expense of greatly reduced battery life. Several different applications were available but tended to be confusing and difficult to use. The systems tended to hang and, although this could be fixed with a reset, it was not uncommon to lose data, particularly following a rapid battery run down. This happened occasionally with Palm devices as well, but Windows CE products seemed to suffer more.

With release 3.0 many of the problems of Windows CE have been overcome. The Pocket PC user interface is a marked improvement, there is a good range of applications and tools, and the functionality and reliability is far better than in version 2.11.

The patchy reputation of Windows CE has led Microsoft to concentrate on the new Pocket PC brand.

Hardware manufacturers working with Microsoft to develop Pocket PCs currently include Casio, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and Symbol. Symbol is a leading manufacturer of handheld devices designed for specialist industrial applications.

The use of the term "PC" is deliberate, implying that the power of these devices approaches that of desktop systems. This may be somewhat fanciful but the new functionality offered, particularly with the extensions made available through specialised compact flash cards, is considerable. A 56kbit/s modem for connection to analogue phone systems can be used, for example, as can a range of cards to connect to mobile phones. Also available are network cards, USB cards, memory cards and even still and video digital cameras working through Compact Flash cards and using the screen and other features of the devices.

Screens will typically be high-quality colour, as in the earlier Casio E-100/105 with its 65,535-colour TFT screen. Devices will include a Compact Flash slot although these look as if they may be restricted mainly to type I, a curious decision given that the cost and size increase of moving to type II would be slight.

Improved connectivity

Hard or soft programmable buttons for one-click application selection seem to be standard, as is the inclusion of infrared connectivity, serial connectivity through a cradle and, frequently, USB connectivity to allow synchronisation of the handheld with desktop PCs.

Devices tend to have a large rocker/ selection button, acting much like a mouse wheel on a desktop device, allowing one-handed use. Pocket PCs are usually capable of playing audio files in MP3 and Microsoft's own WMA formats, and include both an in-built microphone and a speaker as well as a port to take a jack for headphones or external speakers.

The range of applications and tools has been extended with Pocket Word, Pocket Excel, Pocket Internet Explorer and Pocket Outlook. Pocket Money, Pocket Streets, a number of games, and database managers, such as Oracle Lite or Sybases's SQL Anywhere, are also available. It is also possible to use Visual Basic, C++, SQL and other development or query tools with CE and a growing number of third-party applications are starting to appear. There is even a very functional client for Siebel's customer relationship management (CRM) system which can be synchronised with the full version.

Despite the limited size of Pocket PC screens, the Pocket IE Web browser works well and Web pages are either shrunk to fit or the screen acts as a window to the larger page. The various elements of Pocket Outlook closely resemble those of the desktop version while the greatly improved synchronisation features in Active Sync 3.0 help to keep the two in step.

Although setting up modem connections and accessing ISPs is somewhat complex and too US-orientated, once it is completed, handling email is very straightforward. Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) 128bit encryption and eXtensible Markup Language (XML) are supported, as are IMAP4 and POP3.

Though there are still quirks and rough edges to the product portfolio, Windows CE has come a long way in the past two years. Its development illustrates very well Microsoft's standard working practice of identifying a market area, staking a rather poor claim to it with a somewhat indifferent and premature product, albeit one with potential, before acting on user feedback to improve matters while waiting for the hardware to catch up. As in other markets, Microsoft has worked with partners to complete what is needed and create low-cost, sophisticated development tools and support to ensure that applications rapidly become available.

Windows CE has matured into a sound and efficient operating system. The availability of familiar desktop development tools and heavyweight partners such as Casio, Compaq, HP and Symbol will ensure that the Pocket PC is developed and results in useful tools.

The concentration on mobile connectivity is essential and has been well handled. Microsoft needs to make significant gains in this market not just for the sake of this particular operating system but to underpin its desktop and enterprise computing position in a world of distributed computing.

Palm may currently hold three quarters of the PDA market but that figure will drop significantly in favour of Microsoft over the next 12 to 18 months.

Guy Kewney says there's nothing wrong with copying a good idea. But if you are going to copy something, best to make it at least as good as the original, go with Guy to read the news comment at AnchorDesk UK.

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