FRAMINGHAM (03/20/2000) - Since its 1996 launch on what was then called the Handheld PC, Windows CE has been the poor stepchild of Microsoft Corp.'s family of operating systems, designed for an ever-changing succession of small, out-of-the-mainstream computers that never quite caught on.
Remember the Palm-Sized PC with stylus input and no keyboard, or the Handheld PC Pro, a kind of mininotebook that wasn't really handholdable at all? Regarded by many as a crippled version of Windows 9x, Windows CE in its various incarnations has seemed to embody most of the disadvantages but little of the real power of the desktop Windows.
The third time around, however, it looks like Microsoft finally got it right.
More right, anyway. At a reviewer's workshop, I got an intensive briefing on this new operating system for the platform that's now been renamed the Pocket PC. I also got to see prototypes of hardware from Casio Computer Co. Ltd., Compaq Computer Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. that are due to be launched with the system. The new software is clearly better than either its predecessors or, in my opinion, its chief competitor, Palm Inc.'s PalmOS.
I've been using the new operating system on a current-generation HP Jornada 430se, and although there are things I can't discuss until the launch in mid-April, I've seen enough to think the system will be a winner. And its success will be critically important to Microsoft.
Between the attention given to Windows 2000 and Microsoft's legal battles, there's been little public awareness of Windows CE. On balance, that's probably been good for Microsoft, because previous generations of CE had interface and compatibility problems that limited their acceptance in the face of the Palm's user-friendliness.
The fact is, the Pocket PC is far more important to Microsoft's overall future than I had been aware. The company is putting significant resources behind the new platform - and with good reason.
Simply put, the Web browser has become the only window anyone really needs, and the actual computer underneath (both hardware and operating system) hardly matters.
In this new Web-centric environment, the Pocket PC's intelligent browser and relatively large color display give the Microsoft platform a strong advantage over Palm-based devices. Together with a number of enterprise-oriented features (more on this after the launch), plus significant storage and computing power, the Pocket PC may turn out to be Microsoft's secret weapon for staying relevant and competitive.
I'm tempted to think that the Internet's threat to Microsoft's dominance - an argument the company used in its defense against the Justice Department suit, and which most observers have pooh-poohed - may be more realistic than even Microsoft thought. Time will tell.
Here's a quick rundown on some of the new machine's features. The software that ships in April will have more features and more applications.
A Newie GUI. Microsoft has cleaned up and simplified the graphical user interface with context-sensitive menus and good handwriting recognition.
Selections require only a single stylus tap, and the color screens are significantly bigger (three times the pixel count) than the new Palm IIIc.
Come Browse With Me. The centerpiece of the new operating system is a new Pocket Internet Explorer, which can intelligently translate and resize Web pages on the fly to fit the 320- by 240-pixel color screen. This reduces the need for horizontal scrolling. The new browser also supports AvantGo Inc.'s Web-clipped pages tailored for small screens, but it doesn't need to depend on it - potentially a huge advantage.
You've Got Mail. Inbox, the e-mail client, is well integrated with and works similarly to the desktop's Outlook 2000 program. Attachments to e-mail in Word or Excel are now automatically converted for Pocket PC viewing and editing.
Library Lite. Microsoft Reader, an electronic book program, incorporates the first public use of ClearType technology for dramatically improved font rendition. You can carry an entire year's worth of reading on a single compact flash card.
Tunes, Too. Windows Media Player plays CD-quality sound from MP3 or Windows Media files through a headphone jack, as well as MPEG video, thus also replacing a portable MP3-type player.
Plug-In and Play. Autorun compact flash cards can automatically install and uninstall their software upon insertion and removal, which will simplify distribution and use of many types of programs. Games are an obvious choice, but so are many database and vertical applications.
Feed Me Data. ActiveSync 3.1, the Windows-based replication program, now can sync data to the Pocket PC over a variety of links, such as compact flash (CF) modem or infrared. Universal Serial Bus is new and won't require the expensive extra cradle that the Palm does.
No Cords Needed? Wireless-ready is how Microsoft describes these new devices.
While all-in-one-device solutions (à la Palm VII) are a few months off, the new Pocket PCs will be able to use forthcoming wireless CF modems or connect to cell phones via cable or infrared. Bluetooth wireless networking products are expected in the fall.
Pocket Power. One major complaint about CE devices has been short battery life (hours, vs. weeks for the Palm). But newer Palm and Psion PLC machines with more features and color screens show power consumption up and battery life down, approaching those of the CE systems. A Compaq spokesman said that 10 to 12 hours before recharging will be the industry norm.