FRAMINGHAM (04/21/2000) - Microsoft Corp. may be trying to do an end run around arch rival Palm Computing with the new Pocket PC it unveiled last week.
Palm Inc. rules the palm-sized handheld market among white-collar workers.
Microsoft seems to be aiming the Pocket PC at two groups that so far remain virgin territory: sophisticated multimedia zealots and technically unsophisticated workers who need a simple way to access corporate data.
One example of the latter is an inventory tracking system created by FinTech Services, a Calgary SAP systems integrator, for Husky Oil, an exploration and production company. In four weeks, FinTech built a program to run on the PTT 2700 Pocket PC handheld from Symbol Technologies Inc., which specializes in rugged handhelds for vertical markets.
At a remote Husky site, workers pull a spare pump from a shelf and scan its label with the 2700's bar-code reader. A built-in radio links to a wireless LAN, and then to Husky's WAN. At headquarters, the inventory change is routed to an enterprise resource planning system at one of five suppliers. The suppliers can arrange delivery before there's a "stock out."
"In the oil industry, a 'stock out' situation can cost you a lot of money," says Michael Finch, FinTech's director of mobile computing solutions. Just minutes of training were needed to have employees using the Pocket PC application, he says.
The Pocket PC handhelds are "Windows-powered," as Microsoft coyly puts it, dispensing with all reference to the handheld's operating system, which is in fact the latest version of Windows CE. It's getting good reviews.
"They have dramatically simplified the user interface," says Diana Hwang, an industry analyst with market research firm IDC in Framingham, Massachusetts.
"And performance is a lot better, both for applications and for ActiveSync [which synchronizes data between the handheld and a user's PC]."
So far, four hardware vendors - Casio Computer Co. Ltd., Compaq Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Symbol Technologies Inc.- have unveiled new devices with color displays based on Pocket PC software.
Prices are mostly in the $399 to $499 range. Symbol's single-unit price is about $1,000, which includes the wireless link, the bar-code scanner and a sealed, protected case. Palm products range from $249 to $449.
Microsoft has created a stack of software to support Pocket PC, including "pocket" versions of widely used Office applications such as Outlook, Word and Excel. A big addition is the pocket Internet Explorer, which automatically resizes a Web page to fit the handheld's screen.
Third-party software and hardware options will be critical to the success of the Pocket PC in enterprise markets. Socket Communications offers a set of CompactFlash-sized adapters to connect Pocket PCs to mobile phones, Ethernets, and Universal Serial Bus and serial-compatible peripherals. Arcot Systems Inc. ported its WebFort "strong authentication" security software, which adds to the Secure Sockets Layer and 128-bit browser encryption that are part of the Microsoft software.
Casio's models show the range of markets being attacked. One model is aimed at the "mobile professional." Another is aimed at users who want to be able to play digital content. Other models will be designed for specific industry and business markets.
A separate series, the Casio EG models, are aimed at vertical industries and specific business applications.