Palm faithful: Can't buy Pocket PC love

What was meant as an event to introduce influential Palm users to Microsoft's Pocket PC platform came across to some as little more than a thinly veiled bribe
Written by Richard Shim, Contributor

It was billed as an innocuous product demo -- some three dozen influential Palm enthusiasts were invited to Microsoft's Redmond campus for a demonstration of the latter's Pocket PC-based devices, at an event called the Pocket PC Wireless and Beyond.

But what they walked away with was more than $1,400 worth of Pocket PC booty, including two PDAs -- the Compaq iPaq H3650 and Hewlett Packard 540 -- leaving some to wonder if they weren't being bribed. "A cheap tactic," one attendee called it.

The conference was meant to give Palm loyalists an even-handed perspective of Pocket PC devices, and to give and receive some "balanced" responses, said Derek Brown, product manager for Microsoft's mobile devices division and one of the group's hosts. The group included consultants, webmasters of Palm sites, frequent posters to news groups, and book authors. "I didn't care about their initial opinions, I wanted to get feedback from top Palm users," said Brown.

While Palm users had differing views on the purpose of the Redmond field trip, the general consensus was that the Pocket PC accessory kit was -- as, Peter M Fine, president of the NYC Digital Assistant Users' Group, called it -- "overkill in the nicest way".

The kit included a Compaq iPaq H3650 Colour Pocket PC, HP Jornada 540 Colour Pocket PC, 128MB CompactFlash Card, CompactFlash modem, CompactFlash Ethernet card, cell phone adapter, headphones and add-ons, plus a gift certificate for $60 in Microsoft's company store.

Rick Broida, author of the book How to Do Everything with Your Palm Handheld, was even more blunt. "It was a cheap tactic to bring Palm users into the fold with freebies," he said. "And I think they did that because the device doesn't stand well on its own." According to Broida, many of the attendees said they were planning to switch from Palm devices to Pocket PC devices -- not because they were better but because they were free.

Pocket PC devices have played second fiddle to Palm OS-based devices, based on market share, since their inception. The latest numbers from research firm NPD Intelect show that Palm OS-based devices controlled a whopping 85.8 percent of the market in August. Palm's handhelds had 70.3 percent of the market, with Handspring at 15.5 percent (down for 26.1 percent the month earlier). Sony Electronics also recently joined the game with its Clie device, which started shipping in September.

Meanwhile, devices based on the Pocket PC OS have 9.7 percent of the market -- with Compaq's iPaq H3650 accounting for two-thirds of the Pocket PC share, at 6.6 percent. Furthermore, Pocket PC may be losing steam within Microsoft itself.

On Wednesday, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer reportedly said his company is considering delivering applications such as Word and Exchange on the Palm OS. Ballmer made his remarks at GartnerGroup's Symposium/It Expo 2000 conference.

But bribery or forced conversion wasn't the intent of this gift-laden Pocket PC field trip, said Microsoft's Brown. "It wasn't about converting people to Pocket PC," he said. "It was about opening up the lines of communications with an extremely well-informed audience."

"We expected some harsh criticism and I think we got it -- and that was all very good," he added. Fine said he didn't see the gifts as a bribe, either -- just good business, that Microsoft was taking advantage of an opportunity to help Palm users get to know the Pocket PC devices better.

He said he'd been on other similar trips in which influential users were flown in for a product demo. But this was the first time he'd been able to keep the products. "It was nothing like them saying we're giving these to you -- please tell everyone how wonderful they are," said Fine. "I still use my Palm daily. It would have taken a lot more to bribe me."

Dave Johnson, senior editor for PlanetIT, wasn't so sure. "Clearly the event was staged to woo over the people that have influence in the Palm market. It was sort of a grassroots effort to change people's opinion," he said. "At the end of the day the Pocket PCs did not work and yet I overheard people saying that they would be changing because they got goodies."

The rest of the day included walking the attendees through installation and some sample applications. According to Broida and Fine, there were numerous problems installing and synchronising the Pocket PC devices to desktop PCs. "Here we were, a room full of handheld experts, and we had trouble figuring even the basic stuff out. This is exemplary of why the platform doesn't work and Microsoft doesn't get it," said Broida.

Fine was a little more charitable, saying, "I thought the difficulties had more to do with Windows and not so much with Pocket PC. " He said he thought the PDAs themselves are better than the Pocket PC OS at this point.

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