Pocket PC 2003: Strength Behind the Stylus

Guest commentary: Windows Mobile 2003 may appear to be an upgrade that's only skin-deep, but Drugstore.com software engineer Robert Smith believes that its rapid development tools will push the platform past Palm.

On April 24th, Microsoft released the .Net Compact Framework development tools as a fully built-in part of the Visual Studio development system. This was extremely important in the "PDA war" and a strong move to not only start making a serious impact on Palm market share but also to lay to rest the "PDAs are dead" impression.

I have been coding Windows programs for a long time, and the few times I had to code for a handheld were simply a major pain in the butt. It wasnt the OS; it was the tools. You had to work directly and exclusively in the most difficult and tedious lowest-level languages with the fewest developers, and lacked access to any of the bells or whistles of a RAD tool. That made development take a long time. (There are scaled-down easy tools, but you cant do anything worthwhile with them.)

With .Net Compact Framework, I can now pick the language I want to use from the ones that I already know. I can draw, drag, and drop my way to a real fully worthwhile application with a good GUI (nearly the full graphics interfaces of a real Windows target) and a solid back end (fully 100% object oriented, not some old line by line silliness).

I can use amazing database support thanks to the new SQLServer CE that is well beyond the flat-file databases on other PDA platforms. I can easily integrate Web services and Internet Explorer well, And I can nearly take any "real" Windows app and just port it over in no time after adjusting for the screen size, of course.

Pushing Past PalmSource

Palm has market share because it was first and because it was first it has years of legacy software beyond what is available for Pocket PC. But PalmSource, even if it goes 100% open source development, does not have the equivalent RAD development environment. As a result, the number of software programs is going to soon be rising for Pocket PC, and at a potentially exponential rate. I can code a real application in a few hours rather than a week, or a great application in one month while Palm coders will still be taking four months... just because of the tools.

When you make it possible for developers to start getting lots of things out to users quickly, you also increase the likelihood that more innovative applications will be coming out. Before, if someone had a good idea for a PDA application, the cost of development was just too high.

Pocket PC 2003 can be seen at first as just a skin upgrade, but the development tools are now out to make more applicatons faster. Microsoft includes Web services support right at the top. As a result, the OS upgrades that make mobile connectivity easier for the end user are a helpful part of the real plan—driving more applications to increase the users options to sell more hardware.

With all this, the real killer aspect is in the support and power that Microsoft has just recently given to developers. Users dont see it yet, but the PDA is not dead, and PalmSource definitely is in the catch-up position because it doesnt know how to make development tools like Microsoft does.

Robert Smith is Senior Software Development Engineer for Drugstore.com. Two years ago he looked into Microsoft.Net to prove it was just hype but now he is positive that Redmond got it right.