After a year, has Pocket PC been a success?

by Reads (4,740)

Everex, Philips, Uniden. Remember those names? It’s difficult to believe that less than three years ago each was making its mark in the world of handheld computers.

For a while in 1998, Everex was the de facto "king of the hill" in the Windows CE marketplace. Its Freestyle Palm-size PC was named "Best of Comdex" that spring by PC Week, Windows Magazine gave it a "Win100 Award," and it was a finalist in the Best Portables category at CeBIT, Germany’s largest technology trade show.

Uniden was similarly breaking new ground in the handheld market with its Unipro PC100A, a Windows CE Palm-size PC that incorporated not only a Type II CompactFlash slot, but an internal modem, too.

And finally, Philips had its Nino, a stylish head turner which many thought would put Windows CE on the map, possibly even catapult it ahead of the top-selling Palm III.

But by the summer of 1999 Windows CE had made little progress in its pursuit of Palm, and the natives were getting restless. So, like racecar drivers too far behind the leader, one by one they pulled into pit row and quietly called it a day. Soon it boiled down to what I like to call "the Big Three": Casio, Compaq and Hewlett Packard.

Microsoft stated publicly that the attrition in its manufacturing partner ranks was "…a good thing." But when it was immediately followed by an upheaval in Microsoft’s Windows CE management, most industry followers felt otherwise. Behind the scenes Microsoft licked its wounds and moved on, in a way only Microsoft can. It critically examined WinCE’s flaws, as well as the direction of the mobile computing market, and met with "the big three" to lay a plan for the future. It certainly had a big challenge on its hands.

Nearly a year later, in Spring 2000, Microsoft and the Big Three unveiled the results of a strategy that centered around compelling new devices running a reworked version of the Windows CE operating system, called Pocket PC. It countered Palm’s "Simple" mantra with one of its own: Do more.

It’s now been more than a year since Pocket PC’s launch and the question is, has Pocket PC indeed done more? Or is Microsoft in the same precarious position as it was two years ago when Everex, Philips and Uniden led a manufacturer exodus? The answer is both yes and no. Just take a look at what’s happened to the Big Three.

Hewlett Packard was the first manufacturer to support the new Pocket PC direction. Its sleek, aluminum-shelled Jornada 540 series Pocket PC was truly a work of art, and a far cry from the purple dinosaur Jornada Palm-size PCs of the past.

Unfortunately the Jornada Pocket PC could not shake a couple of elements of its heritage, a so-so display and a so-so processor, which had more to do with cultural and political factors within HP than anything else. Because of this, the Jornada has not made the gains that HP hoped it would. In fact, HP’s share of the handheld market dropped from 2.9% in 1999 to 2.3% in 2000, according to IDC.

Casio seemed to step into the Pocket PC pool with only one foot, choosing to leverage the success of (and investment in) its E-100 series by "…not changing a winning game." It simply upgraded the E-105 with the new Pocket PC OS and dubbed it the E-115 Pocket PC. Not quite the true spirit of the Pocket PC philosophy.

Eventually Casio released an exciting new device, the Cassiopeia EM-500, but while its colorful design was laudable, its lack of accessories was puzzling. And its gamble on the nascent MultiMediaCard standard has so far proven to be premature. Overall, Casio saw its portion of the handheld market shrink from 11% to 6% in 2000.

And then there’s Compaq. Its iPAQ Pocket PC, while late to the game, has proven to be the boldest move of the Big Three, and certainly the last laugh for Compaq. The computer press, save for Pen Computing’s Editor-in-Chief Conrad Blickenstorfer, ridiculed Compaq for the iPAQ’s design, especially the Expansion Pack technology. But the iPAQ Pocket PC, with its fast processor, indoor/outdoor display, and flexibility, has become one of the hottest tech gadgets of recent memory–and quite possibly, the saving grace for Pocket PC.

But Compaq couldn’t manufacture enough iPAQs to meet demand, so it remained behind HP and Casio with a meager 2% marketshare.

Still, thanks to the incredible demand for the iPAQ, it’s once again hip to be a Pocket PC manufacturer, so much so that everyone seems to have a Pocket PC in the works. This year alone we’ll see at least four new entrants into the marketplace, including Intermec, UR There, Toshiba, and, possibly, Dell and Sharp.

Apparently we’ve come full-circle, but are we simply poised for the same outcome in 2002 as we witnessed in 1999? Will the market become saturated with new devices, too many for the market to bear, until it must, once again, undergo a "survival of the fittest" shakeout?

Only time will tell, but in order to succeed in the competitive handheld space, new entrants must remember to do one thing: Raise the bar. Develop a smaller form factor, increase battery life, offer a better display, add a faster processor, install smaller expansion options, and compete aggressively on price.

Otherwise, we’ll be reminiscing about them in two years, just like we reminisce about Everex, Philips, and Uniden today.

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