When Microsoft created its first operating system for handhelds, the devices that ran it used a clamshell design, with a landscape-oriented screen on one side and a keyboard on the other. Unfortunately, these handhelds were being made at a time when their makers’ dreams were exceeding their grasp. While these so-called Handheld PCs had a lot of potential, they also had short battery lives and poor performance. Combine this with high prices and they didn’t exactly take the world by storm.
So Microsoft went back to the drawing board and created Pocket PC, designed to run on tablet-shaped devices with no keyboards. While this created the handhelds that so many know and love today, I think Microsoft was too quick to abandon the clamshell shape.
Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater
While it’s true that models running Microsoft’s Handheld PC 2000 operating system weren’t terribly successful, this had more to do with their battery lives and performance than their basic design.
It’s apparent that there is still a burgeoning market for clamshell devices. Earlier this year, Sharp introduced the Zaurus C700 series, which runs Linux and has a clamshell design. These models even include a 640-by-480 pixel screen in a device only 4.7 by 3.3 by 0.9 inches. (See picture at right.) In addition, Sony recently announced the UX series, which employs a clamshell design and includes integrated wireless networking.
Both of these take the classic clamshell and add a twist…literally. The screens can be twisted around and closed over the keyboard, allowing them to also be used as a tablet.
Before I go any farther, let me make it clear that I don’t think Microsoft’s decision to release the Pocket PC was a mistake. Nor do I believe clamshell handhelds will replace tablet-shaped ones. What I’m suggesting is choice. Some users prefer a clamshell handheld and there should be a Pocket PC option for them.
A Wish List
However, for these devices to succeed they need to be done right. The first thing Microsoft should do is add landscape support to Pocket PC and make it easy for developers to create software than can run in either portrait or landscape. The goal would be to give the new clamshell models access to the huge amounts of already-available Pocket PC applications.
The clamshell Pocket PCs are going to fit somewhere between tablet-shaped handhelds and full laptops. To succeed, they will need to have advantages over the other two options. Their primary advantage over current Pocket PCs would be a built-in keyboard. While long-time handheld users are familiar with the current methods of text entry — like Calligrapher or Block Recognizer — these are a bit frightening to new users, and even many experienced users would prefer a keyboard. However, for a clamshell Pocket PC to succeed, it needs a well-designed keyboard that is significantly better than the Pocket PC’s current options.
Clamshell devices of this sort are likely to cost between $600 and $800, so they need to have some obvious advantages over low-end laptops. To compete successfully, clamshell handhelds need to be small enough to fit in the user’s pocket. They also need to have a battery life longer than that of most laptops.
While the ability to reconfigure into a standard tablet shape is nice, it isn’t a requirement. And gizmos like the UX series’ integrated cameras are definitely not necessary.
Just Consider It
A clamshell Pocket PC isn’t out of the question. Microsoft recently relaxed the stringent restrictions it placed on hardware designers. Now it’s up to licensees to realize that there is a demand for alternative form factors, like the clamshell.
Lots of people go through the hassle of bringing a five or six pound, $2000 laptop with them on business trips just so they can check their mail or do some rudimentary word processing. They could save themselves a lot of trouble, and reduce the risk of having a very expensive laptop stolen, by bringing along a clamshell Pocket PC instead.