Windows Mobile 5.0 Could Wake Up PDA Market

Opinion: Microsoft's new mobile OS, formerly code-named Magneto, could combine the appeal of the smart phone and the iPod.

Microsoft is releasing Windows Mobile 5.0 this week, an operating system the best feature of which it amazes me they are just now introducing: non-volatile memory. Devices using the new OS, due this summer, will have persistent memory, meaning your Microsoft PDA or smart phone wont go brain-dead when the battery dies.

Actually, the old devices were supposed to hold memory for 72 hours after the device stopped functioning due to low power. That was never enough for me, and its a real pain to have to reload all your data and applications just because you left the PDA lying around (off the charger) for a week.

Jason Gordon, a friend who works in the Microsoft mobile group, told me that the old designs required 30 percent of the battery power to be reserved for this 72-hour memory backup. That was a pretty hefty toll for a feature that wasnt very helpful. (Yes, ActiveSync has a backup feature, which remains slow to the point of uselessness).

The new operating system, with its persistent memory support (which Palm OS already offers) will get this 30 percent of battery power back. Thats good news when you hear about another new feature of Windows Mobile 5.0: support for hard drives.

Having a hard drive means Microsoft and its hardware OEMs could actually beat Apple in the race to bring to market an interesting cellular handset with "real" music storage capabilities. No longer would users have to decide between carrying just a cell phone or a cell phone and a hard drive-based music device. I am not expecting 30 or 40GB models anytime soon, but a Microsoft-based 3-6GB device seems perfectly plausible before year-end.

/zimages/6/28571.gifRead more here about Microsofts new mobile OS, previously code-named Magneto.

Jason told me that Windows Mobile 5.0 caches music into memory in order to avoid spinning the hard drive, reducing the drives considerable power draw. Power remains a big issue for mobile device OEMs, however, pending the development of a tiny (and safe) carry-around nuclear power source.

I wont go into all the new features in the operating system, though another standout is support for displays in landscape orientation, which should be particularly attractive to multimedia hardware designers.

The announcement of the new operating system, made by Bill Gates at the Windows mobile and embedded DevCon in Las Vegas, marked the fifth anniversary (plus two weeks) of Microsofts entry into the mobile devices market.

It seems like it has been much longer since the Pocket PC was introduced. At that time, Spring 2000, there were three hardware manufacturers and the best device was a Compaq iPaq. Today, there are 41 OEMs and the best device is a Hewlett-Packard iPaq.

The reason it seems like the Pocket PC was introduced so much longer ago could be that it released 5 years after Jeff Hawkins began development of the original Palm Pilot, which I helped introduce as host of the 1996 Demo conference. The two platforms have been such competitors that its hard to realize how much time separated their respective introductions.

In the interim, the stand-alone PDA market seems to have stalled. For everyone except Microsoft, that is. According to Jason Gordon, Microsoft continues to see growth in PDA sales. What he didnt say is that the cellular handset market has proven much harder for Microsoft to crack. Still, with 30 percent year-to-year revenue growth, Microsofts mobile business has much to be happy about.

Five years ago, PDAs were all the rage and Palm was the market leader. Today, the PDA market is flat and the move to "smart phones" seems much slower than had been expected. The smartest way to sell a new cell phone today might to be combine it with an iPod, which is one of the things Microsoft is doing in its newest release of the operating system.

/zimages/6/28571.gifWhat will Windows Mobile 5.0 do for your mobile phone, according to Bill Gates? Click here to read more.

Palm has absorbed one company (Handspring), split itself into separate product and operating system companies and settled into survival mode. The recent purchase of China MobileSoft by PalmSource (the operating system company, led by former Apple exec Dave Nagel) is seen by some as signaling a retreat from Palm OS as the company develops for low-end "smart" cellular handsets. These would better compete with the Symbian OS offerings from Nokia and others. Theres a potential upside here, but not for Palm OS as we know it.

Microsoft, meanwhile, hasnt developed a huge amount of traction in the high-end smart phone business, dominated by Palms Treo 650, but the market remains small. Where enterprises have standardized on PDAs they have tended to select Microsoft-based devices. Individual users, however, generally put the less-expensive Palm models on their expense accounts.

Five years in, Microsoft continues to advance the handheld computing state-of-the-art, as does the Palm community, but its hard not to feel like the progress has been slow. Prices remain high, at least if you want a really functional device, and functionality could still be better. Smart phones simply havent caught on.

The handheld device that everyone wants today is a music player—the iPod in particular—and cellular handsets arent nearly as exciting as they once were. Microsoft clearly hopes that Windows Mobile 5.0 will reignite both the PDA and smart-phone markets. Thats sorely needed and I wish Microsoft well.

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