With Pocket PC, MS Prays that Third Time Is Charm

SAN MATEO (04/18/2000) - If you're catching a whiff of desperation in the air, it just may be blowing over from Redmond, Washington. And I'm not referring to Microsoft Corp.'s legal struggles with the Department of Justice and the decision of Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, which at this point have become old news. I'm talking about the veritable tail whipping Microsoft has received to date in the handheld market and its final attempt to win over the wallets of handheld users the world over.

Who ever thought we would live to see the day when Microsoft was a true underdog? But with this Windows CE business of theirs, that's exactly what they are. I almost feel sorry for the little guys. (I can't believe I just wrote that.) Nonetheless, Microsoft will be announcing its third version of the Pocket PC version of Windows CE on April 19th, and if this one goes kaput, I predict that will be the end of Microsoft's foray into the handheld operating-systems market.

In the meantime, partnerships and customer wins -- and soaring revenues -- keep pouring in for Palm Inc. The Palm IPO went off without a hitch, and the little-handheld-that-could seems to have insurmountable momentum.

But this is Microsoft we're talking about here, and this is going to be a fun fight to watch. Microsoft is cranking up the same marketing machine that made them what they are today, and that is a scary proposition. It usually takes Microsoft three versions before they get any product right, and this will be their third shot at Pocket PC. So after years of the general public doing product testing and bug fixing for early versions of Windows CE, it will be interesting to see what they come up with this time.

But for all the things that I've hated about Win CE over the years, my advice would be to give the kids from Redmond one last try. I figure they know how important a market this is, and if they lose hold of the information appliance market, it will put a serious crimp in their plans for total world domination.

If they blow this, it could be ugly.

I think Microsoft will be working with customers and partners that have some pretty short fuses. Wary hardware vendors will want nothing less than a perfect product, or we'll probably start to see them switching camps. And if there is still anyone out there who doesn't already own a Palm, it will be tough to convince them to try Windows CE.

One pet peeve of mine: when you check out the new Pocket PC -- which is really an unfortunate name since everybody else in the tech industry is distancing themselves from the word PC -- make sure you don't fall for the old "it integrates better with a Windows environment" shtick. I think Palm has proven pretty decisively that they integrate better in a Windows environment than Windows CE does.

So when and if you get your hands on the new version of Pocket PC from Microsoft, let me know what you think. Write to me at dan_briody@infoworld.com.

Dan Briody is an InfoWorld editor at large.

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