MS slips 'simplicity' into PocketPC

Easy to use is the message as Microsoft rolls out PocketPC improvements for handheld devices

While 3Com's Palm Computing Division launched its much anticipated color Palm IIIc on Tuesday, Microsoft was preparing to show off another piece of its rival Palm-size platform, now called the PocketPC.

At the giant CeBIT tech-industry trade show in Germany this week, Microsoft will show a new Internet Explorer, called Pocket Explorer, for PocketPC products. The browser will allow users to view sites offline, automatically reformatting them for better viewing on a small screen. The minibrowser is the latest part of Microsoft's rollout strategy for PocketPC, the follow-on to its Palm-size PC. PocketPC, which utilises the Windows CE operating system, is scheduled to ship in the first half of this year.

Despite supporting high-resolution colour screens, the Windows CE operating system has been criticised for being difficult to use. PocketPC, in response, is intended to provide the user with a simpler interface that means easier access to data. A prototype device, viewed by ZDNet News, showed a somewhat simpler design.

The user interface eliminates the "Start" button, which is now located on the lower-left side of the screen. Instead, the newer devices will offer a Windows icon located on the top left, which the user clicks to gain access to a drop-down menu. Also revealed with the drop-down menu are a series of single-click icons for launching mail and calendar applications.

Underneath the single-click buttons is a list of tasks (looking just like the Windows Start menu) that a user can click on. A number of single-click icons are also utilised at the bottom of the screen in certain applications.

Ironically, this design is similar to the drop-down menu approach taken by Palm Computing's new operating system, version 3.5.

A quick look in the Programs folder of the Microsoft device revealed that copies of Word, Excel and Money were installed on this unit. Until now, Word and Excel haven't been shipped on or available for handheld PCs.

The new user interface, known by its codename Rapier, has a browser-like look and feel -- except for the menus, which are distinctly derived from Windows. The new look is surely intentional, as Microsoft this week will announce a new version of Internet Explorer for PocketPC. The browser will automatically detect if the device is online, and can also reformat a Web page for easier viewing on the PocketPC's tiny screen.

The browser ties in with Internet Explorer 5 on a desktop PC, thus allowing a user to select "Mobile Favorites" or Web sites that can be stored on the device and viewed offline later. Users can also use a GSM phone to connect the device directly to the Internet.

The forthcoming browser will be available only for PocketPC. Older devices won't be able to use the application, Microsoft officials said.

With Palm Computing's colour Palm IIIc now on the market, Microsoft may have lost some advantage. However, the company doesn't think so. Instead, Microsoft officials put forth a "been there, done that" attitude. The new Palm device "is 8-bit (colour), which is entirely underwhelming. If I see it and it's clever, I'll eat my words, but from all I've heard... it's pretty basic," said Brian Shafer, a Windows CE product manager.

That said, Palm and Microsoft, are moving toward similar goals. Palm is working to add features to its OS and user interface. But, while Palm works to beef up its handhelds, Microsoft is working to slim down its PocketPC. To date, Microsoft has announced the PocketPC name, along with two PocketPC applications and the release of Internet Explorer for the handheld this week. The official launch of devices utilising the new Rapier software is expected in the first half of the year. Casio, Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard and Symbol Technologies are expected to be first out the door with the new devices. Shafer said he expects PocketPC products to be smaller than earlier colour devices.

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