Pocket PCs Game Plan

Microsoft's 'Merlin' OS shows a shift toward the enterprise.

Microsoft Corp.s game plan for knocking Palm Inc. from the top spot among PDAs has not changed: If the company is to err in the development of its handheld operating system, it will continue to do so on the side of feature richness and complexity.

Nevertheless, the newest features to find their way into Microsofts Pocket PC 2002, code-named Merlin, such as strong password support and a VPN (virtual private network) client, demonstrate a tighter focus on the needs of the enterprise than did the multimedia enhancements that dominated the last version of Pocket PC.

Whats more, by mandating that all Pocket PC devices be built with StrongARM processors and flash ROM, Microsoft has begun to pay closer attention to the hardware side of the personal digital assistants it supports—some of last years initial Pocket PC devices were released with hardware resources too meager to cast Microsofts operating system in the best light.

Pocket PC 2002 devices are still more costly and difficult to use than the Palm OS-based units that dominate the market, but Palm has announced plans to shift to a more complex and multimedia-rich architecture for Palm OS 5.0, which will also run on ARM chips.

If Palm does opt to move from its traditional design philosophy of simple and inexpensive devices toward a laptop replacement-type model like that of Pocket PC, the companys task will be particularly difficult.

Palm has announced that it will ship ARM-based devices running Palm OS 5.0 sometime next year, but we have yet to see any sign of the operating system. Also, Palms recent acquisition of Be Inc.s technology and engineering team suggests that Palm may be at a much earlier stage in the development of its next operating system than company officials have intimated.

By comparison, Pocket PC 2002 is based on the same Windows CE 3.0 foundation as Pocket PC. And, Microsofts next-generation handheld operating system, code-named Talisker, is already in its second beta.