Pocket PC 2003 Wont Make Palm Sweat

While Microsoft's once-again renamed handheld operating system offers minor tweaks, Microsoft missed a golden opportunity to be a Palm-killer. Now PalmSource has the breathing room to cook up an even stronger answer to the Pocket PC.

All Im asking Microsoft to do is humor me. I already know that the PDA is dead, but all the company is proving is that the less things change, the more they stay the same.

Time was when Microsoft was eager to take every play they could out of Palms book—the memo pad form factor, handwriting recognition, and synchronization. However, with the release of Windows Mobile, nee Pocket PC 2003, Microsoft has started mimicking Palm OS in another way. Its getting increasingly hard to tell the new version from the last. Pocket PC handhelds have become so boring that about the only suspense left for new models is the inclusion of Compact Flash.

While it is coming out just a year after the last major release of the Pocket PC operating system, Windows Mobile is little more than a sleek tweak that puts the emphasis on the key areas where Microsoft has been leading the charge. Integrated support for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi coupled with improvements in Pocket Internet Explorer will help revive the dream of high-speed wireless Web browsing. While this still wont likely be as pleasurable experience as desktop surfing, it can come in handy for accessing that vast storehouse of information. Plus, improved VPN support should ease perusal of corporate network resources.

In contrast, support for Windows Media 9 may not vastly increase the audio and video content available for the mobile devices, but taking it in combination with an improved photo viewer should aid Pocket PCs multimedia flair. Also, a new Windows CE core should help with stability. PC Magazine has found that the new Pocket PCs are already doing better with stable synchronization than their predecessors.

Not to be outdone in underwhelming customers, most device manufacturers such as Dell and Toshiba trotted out barely revised versions of their existing Pocket PC handhelds. About the most exciting model came from HP. Its slightly bigger than its h1910, but includes Compact Flash! (See? I told you.)

In the market share war with rival PalmSource, Windows Mobile wont do much to shift the balance. This was a real missed opportunity for Microsoft because PalmSource has been somewhat vulnerable since the release of Palm OS 5; it is basically losing a development cycle in transitioning to the ARM processor. The Microsoft that everyone loves to hate would have come out swinging like it did during the browser war and capitalized on its opponents vulnerability, but instead it has delivered only incremental improvements. At CeBIT America, PalmSource CEO David Nagel made clear that the next revision of Palm OS will pull no punches in competing with Microsofts handheld efforts, and the products timeworn interface is due for a makeover as well.

However, PalmSource has a pretty good story to tell even now. It has been scoring notable wins in a variety of categories—volume wireless handsets such as the impressive Samsung SPH-i500, technically impressive novelties such as the Fossil WristPDA, and innovative hybrids such as the Garmin iQue 360, which integrates GPS. PalmSource has been able to make the same architecture stretch across handheld, smartphone, and even wristwatch form factors. Microsoft needs three operating systems to cover that gamut. Maybe its time for the company to follow PalmSource again.

Do you think Windows Mobile a big letdown or does it push Microsoft further past PalmSource? E-mail me.

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.

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