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ISSUE 559: The high-tech office- July 11 2000

ALAN ZISMAN

Pocket PCs offer lots more than a Palm-ful of software

A few weeks ago, I suggested Microsoft was being left out in the cold in a number of areas with future growth.

Take handheld computers. Micro-
soft has produced several versions of its Windows CE operating system. While a number of big companies -- including Compaq, Hewlett Packard and Casio -- have produced CE-powered systems, none has made a significant dent in the market domination of Palm, which holds more than 80 per cent of the Canadian market.

There are new palm-sized models from both Palm and the various Microsoft-powered manufacturers (now referring to their units as Pocket PCs). On the Palm side, the news is colour. The company's first colour-capable model, the Palm IIIC, resembles the earlier IIIxe model rather than the sleeker-looking Palm V-series. But unlike those models' grey-on-grey screens, it offers 256 colours.

Support for colour in the Palm operating system and software package is minimal. There are colour icons, use of contrasting colours in the calendar and to-do list and the like. Despite that, I found the new screen much nicer to work with. Real black on real white is much easier on my eyes than dark grey on light grey.

That benefit, though, comes with costs. The IIIC is selling for around $680, a significant boost from the monochrome IIIxe's $380 price. And while monochrome Palms just keep going and going, the colour model promises eight to 12 hours to a battery charge. This is less an issue than it might be, however, as the IIIC uses rechargeable lithium ion batteries. These come back to life when the unit sits in its cradle so many users may never find themselves with run-down batteries.

Cynics suggest that Microsoft often takes several versions before getting a product that's ready for mass popularity. Windows, first released in 1985, only became a bestseller with the 1990 release of version 3.0.

With Windows CE, Microsoft's operating system for midget computers, Microsoft tried to graft a familiar Windows 95-like interface onto a tiny screen. Critics complained that the start button, taskbar and menu bars took up too much screen space and forced users to click too many times to accomplish simple tasks.

The company hopes that the new-
est version of its mini-system will repeat Windows 3.0's luck, breaking barriers to mass acceptance. Microsoft has dropped the CE moniker, with new units from Casio, Compaq and HP proclaiming that they are "Windows Powered." I spent some time with HP's latest handheld, a Jornada 540.

The slick $729 unit features more RAM and more on-screen colours than the new Palm. Like its competitor, it uses a simplified handwriting system and packs rechargeable batteries. The new operating system is more Palm-like, with buttons on the case for instant startup of four basic applications and icons on-screen to start the rest. There's still a start button, but it's barely noticeable.

Despite the increased resemblance to the Palm, the Jornada and other "Windows Powered" units from Compaq and Casio differ from that popular series in basic ways. Palm has deliberately aimed for simplicity. Its handhelds offer a relatively Spartan set of features that are simple to use.

The Windows-powered models offer more in an effort to be a sort of real computer that fits in your pocket. The base software package includes a mini-word-processor and spreadsheet, along with e-mail and Web browsing (modem not included). Multimedia features allow you to record short messages or play MP3 music files. A CompactFlash slot makes for easier addition of modems, extra memory and the like.

With the Microsoft Reader application, users can store entire books and read them onscreen. While Palm users have done something similar on their models for some time, the text on the Jornada is much more readable than on the Palm.

We'll see whether models such as the Jornada make it possible for Microsoft to come from behind, or whether Palm's philosophy of doing less, but doing it well, continues to be what users want. *

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan