Microsoft's Pocket PC offers strong platform for devices

by Alan Zisman (c) 2001
First published in Business in Vancouver,  Issue #631 November 27- December 3, 2001, The High Tech Office column

It's been a busy autumn for Microsoft. The software giant released its Windows XP operating system in late October, its X-box game system in November. Starting it off on October 4 was the latest version of its handheld platform, Pocket PC 2002.

A bit of background. Pocket computers are nearly all coming in one of two flavours these days: Palm OS systems from Palm, Handspring, Sony and a few others, and Pocket PC-powered devices (formerly known as Windows CE) from the likes of Compaq, HP, Toshiba and Casio.

Although in a bit of a slump lately, the Palm camp controls the bulk of the market. But the picture changes when you look at higher end (and more profitable) devices. That's where Pocket PC has been coming on strong.

HP was the first to offer models powered by Microsoft's new system. Both the Jornada 565 (with 32 MB of memory, $899) and 568 (with 64 MB of memory, $999) come in attractively sculpted yet business-like flip-cover cases, with screens displaying a stunning 65,000 colours doing a nice job of displaying photos and (brief) video clips. A built-in Compact Flash slot allows for data storage on these industry-standard memory cards and future expandability, with wireless network adapters, cameras and more promised to fit into the CF slot. There are microphones, speakers and headphone jacks for recording and playing back voice notes and MP3 music.

HP Jornada 565 uses the new Pocket Windows 2002Both Jornadas boast 14-hour battery life, the best in their class. The rechargeable batteries ($89) are removable, a real plus, allowing users to carry a second to double its work life. And the AC adapter is standard and separate from the cradle, making it easy to carry on the road.

Like other handheld devices, it's instant-on. (When will we see a manufacturer offer this in a notebook or desktop computer?)

Like other Pocket PC devices, it comes with a standard Microsoft software package: pocket-sized versions of Word (now complete with spell checking), Excel, Outlook, Media Player and Internet Explorer (Internet access not included). Terminal Services allows the unit to connect right into a corporate network and run full-scale business software.

HP adds its own software bundle, including a business calculator and software to connect to corporate Virtual Private Networks, along with drivers for not-yet-available 802.11b WiFi wireless networking adapters.

The Pocket PC operating system builds on its similarity to its big Windows cousin, though with the Start button flipped to the top. New to this version are multiple ways to input data, including a Graffiti-clone for users moving over from Palm-styled devices. Like Apple's fabled Newton, it can also try to make sense of your handwriting... and like the Newton, it was stymied trying to understand mine.

The Microsoft Office compatibility and new networking features are designed to make the new generation more attractive to corporate IT departments. And for home users, there's all the multimedia glitz: you can listen to music and watch videos and more. There remains a certain clumsiness, however, perhaps the result of trying to cram the equivalent of a big computer into a pocket-sized device.

For instance, try to find a program you've installed. The icon to start it could be in any one of three places: the Start Menu, a Programs screen or an HP-provided Home screen. Adding a new calendar appointment or changing the time of an existing appointment is still more work than on a Palm. 

Still, more than ever before, these new Jornadas will (perhaps with the addition of a $150 Targus fold-up keyboard and a modem, wired or wireless) do most of what we haul around a notebook computer for. And they boot up instantly and fit into pocket or purse. 

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