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.
Pocket PC 2002 ships with a couple of new options for data input—Transcriber and Block Recognizer.
Transcriber is a handwriting recognition application that has been available for free download from Microsoft for some time, but because the application was finished too late for inclusion in last years Pocket PC operating system, many users were unaware of its existence. Effective handwriting recognition is more processor-intensive than other input methods and is a good use of the speedy StrongARM chips around which Pocket PC 2002 devices will be built.
Block Recognizer mimics Palms Graffiti input utility, and veteran Palm users—many of whom have spent so many hours scratching out Graffiti glyphs that they find the characters surfacing in their handwriting—will appreciate this option when weighing a device defection.
Users of Windows CE have always been puzzled by the operating systems insistence on managing RAM on its own, preventing users from closing applications as they are accustomed to doing on desktop PCs. This does not change with Pocket PC 2002, but Microsoft has added what appears to be a Close Application button to the tool bar, which sends the current application to the background. In this way, users can step back through the applications theyve run to the Today screen; the result is a more intuitive interface that can help prevent users from getting lost among the devices applications.
Hewlett-Packard Co. was first out of the gate with its Pocket PC 2002-based Jornada 560 devices, but we expect to see devices on the way from Pocket PC stalwarts Compaq Computer Corp., Casio Inc. and Symbol Technologies Inc. before the end of the year.
In addition, Toshiba America Inc. and NEC Computers Inc. will release their first Pocket PC devices in the coming months.