This year is going to be a momentous one for the handheld market. Both the Palm OS and Pocket PC operating systems will get significant upgrades, and there will be some welcome improvements in hardware, too.
Palm OS This is going to be a very important year for the Palm platform. Devices running Palm OS 6 are going to come out in the first part of the year, marking the first really significant change to the operating system in, well, ever.
Palm OS 6 is going to bring real multithreading and multitasking, as well as a bunch of other changes. Whether PalmSource can pull this off without making the operating system bloated and unresponsive is the $64,000 question. Still, if PalmSource wants to compete with Pocket PC, these features are necessary.
I’m doubtful that PalmSource can get it right on the first try. I predict that the first Palm OS 6 devices will need at least a 400 MHz processor and a heap of RAM to perform well. There’ll be sluggishness when multitasking and all-too-frequent crashing. Later versions of the operating system will be much more optimized and perform better.
As a newly-independent company, PalmSource needs to find new licensees to increase its revenue. I’ve heard some hints that companies that currently make other types of handhelds will become Palm OS licensees in 2004, but I can’t say who at this point.
Pocket PC Microsoft’s job is much easier. It already has a solid core operating system that just needs some tweaking. I’m confident Windows Mobile 2004 will bring us all the interface improvements we’ve been asking for.
We already know it will support VGA screens and landscape mode, but I see a lot of small changes being made, too, like finally being able to easily close applications. And someone at Microsoft will surely find the bug that keeps alarms from sometimes not going off. And I even dare hope for recurring alarms.
Higher-Resolution Screens Toshiba introduced the first Pocket PC with a VGA (480 by 640 pixels) screen and I’m sure several other companies will follow suit, both Palm OS and Pocket PC. They have to, if they want to stay competitive. I talked about this in depth in a previous editorial.
Faster Processors Intel has released the first details of its next generation of XScale processors, codenamed Bulverde. Though it didn’t say what speeds we can expect from these chips, we do know they will use less power, so there’s room to go faster without making battery lives unacceptable.
The XScale line has been stuck at 400 MHz for a very long time. I’m hoping the next generation will bring us 600 MHz, and eventually even 800 MHz. However, there won’t be any devices running these new processors until the second half of 2004, at the earliest.
Microdrives I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that someone will release in 2004 a handheld with a tiny hard drive, called a microdrive, built in. Toshiba recently announced a microdrive that is about the size of a nickel and can store between 2 GB and 3 GB of data (see picture at right) but tiny hard drives are available from several companies.
I’m guessing the company that will first put a microdrive into a handheld will be either Toshiba or Sony. Both of these companies need to stand out from the crowd and have a history of using cutting-edge features to do so.
Wireless Almost every high-end handheld that came out this year had some form of wireless networking. However, almost no mid-range models offer this without an add-on card. Next year, wireless networking will steadily work its way down into lower-priced models. By the end of the year we’ll see handhelds debut with dual forms of wireless networking for less than $300, and ones with just Bluetooth for significantly less than that.
We won’t remember 2004 as the year Bluetooth caught on because it already happened in 2003. Both it and Wi-Fi will continue to co-exist for the foreseeable future because both are still necessary to keep people connected to the Internet wherever they go.
That’s why, in 2004, we’ll see more models with both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Soon almost every high-end model will offer this combination.
We’ll also see our first handheld with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and some form of cellular-wireless. Both HP and Dell are supposed to be working on models with all three of these. The only Palm licensee who might do something like this is palmOne, but I don’t think it will happen, not in 2004 anyway.
The Handheld Market
Sales of handhelds have been flat over the past several years, ever since the economy went into a tailspin. Signs of economic recovery are everywhere, though, and as people become more optimistic they’ll be more willing to buy handhelds.
The same is true of companies. Handhelds are becoming ever more powerful and better able to replace a laptop because they are so much easier to carry around. More companies are going to realize there’s a cost savings from outfitting their employees with both a desktop and a handheld, rather than a giving them a laptop.
That’s why I see a noticeable increase in handheld sales this year, though it won’t be huge.
Smartphone sales will also increase but this won’t have a large impact on handhelds.
Happy New Year!
Whatever happens in 2004, the Brighthand staff will be here to keep you up on the latest news from the handheld front.